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Can Birds of a Religious Feather Retire Together?

People of faith have a constitutional right to establish “voluntary associations to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine” and the moral standards by which the members of the association are to be governed. Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679, 728– 729 (1871). This right applies to churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. But does it also apply in the context of faith-based retirement communities or senior housing developments? 

Take, for example, the “first-of-its kind Mega Muslim Community Development Project” in Michigan. The proposed development will include a senior housing village for Muslim residents centered around a mosque and committed to providing a “serene environment for worshippers.” Though this may be the first-of-its kind for the Muslim community, other religious communities have long provided faith-based retirement communities for their seniors.  There are thousands of Christian retirement communities across the country. Some place a high priority on promoting their religious mission and values; others don’t. 

Those seeking to keep the faith at the fore of their faith-based retirement communities will have to navigate several legal issues other types of religious institutions are currently litigating. For example, can a religious institution hire or fire based on whether an employee shares the religious mission or values of the institution?  Or can federal or state employment nondiscrimination laws compel the institution to hire employees that oppose or defy the religious mission or values of the institution? Christian homeless shelters are currently having to litigate this issue. And what about federal, state, and local fair housing laws which prohibit discrimination because of the religion or sexual orientation of the would-be resident? Can faith-based retirement communities exclude those who do not share or wish to express the religious beliefs and values of the rest of the religious community?

These questions and more will need to be addressed at every level, and faith-based retirement communities would do well to get out ahead of them. At Dalton & Tomich, we help a wide array of religious institutions, including faith-based retirement communities, navigate these issues. From reviewing and revising governing documents to advising on policies and procedures, our goal is to place our clients in the best position to advance their religious mission and values.  

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