There are no exemptions to fair housing laws for religious organizations in Massachusetts, nor should there be. So when the Diocese of Worcester terminated a real estate negotiation with a gay couple, apparently out of fear that a former church property might eventually be used for gay weddings, the diocese was on the wrong side of the law.
Defenders say the diocese should be able to prevent former church properties from being used for purposes of which the diocese disapproves. And in certain situations, such as turning former church buildings into bars, the diocese may be able to exercise its discretion as a property seller without trampling on anyone’s rights. But it can’t in the case at hand.
The couple seeking to buy the the church-owned Oakhurst mansion in Northbridge said they never even raised the issue of gay marriage during the negotiation. They hoped to turn the estate house into an inn. The diocese, in turn, indicated that its concerns extended only to the buyers’ financial viability. But an inadvertently distributed e-mail from Monsignor Thomas Sullivan, chancellor of the diocese, cited a conversation with the bishop about the “potentiality of gay marriages’’ at the future inn as a reason not to go forward with the negotiation.
The state’s fair housing law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, religion, and other protected classes. It applies to both the sale and rental of housing accommodations and commercial space. And the diocese is “subject to the law like anyone else,’’ according to Gregory Vasil, the head of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.
The church is free to restrict what it considers unbecoming uses within its geographic boundaries. But its insistence on controlling how even its former properties are used is getting out of hand. What started as a strategy to block the use of former church buildings as abortion clinics has expanded to efforts to block charter schools and entertainment venues — and now to what looks like an infringement on the civil rights of gays. The longer this list grows, the weaker the church’s argument that its moral authority should apply to future owners and occupants of the properties.
The diocese says former church buildings have special significance to those who once attended services there. But the church has the ability to deconsecrate its properties. That is the most sensible solution. Or it could go to the Legislature for an exemption. Lawmakers, for example, have exempted owner-occupied, two-family homes from most fair housing requirements. But it would be awkward indeed for a religious institution to insist on the right to discriminate in something as impersonal as a sale of property.
In any case, the Worcester diocese should stop acting like it is already exempt from the state’s fair housing laws.