FREDERICKSBURG — A couple living in the Evergreens at Smith Run in Fredericksburg is suing the senior-living facility, claiming it violated their religious freedom rights.
Attorneys for Ken and Liv Hauge argue in federal court filings that the couple was not allowed to hold Bible studies, that staff prohibited the couple and other residents from saying grace during meals and that some residents harassed the couple and others who took part in religious studies or gatherings.
The civil suit was filed by the Texas-based First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit that seeks to protect religious freedom rights, and attorneys for the Hunton Andrews Kurth law firm in Richmond in Virginia’s Eastern U.S. District Court.
Ken Hauge is an 86-year-old former Lutheran minister and Liv Hauge, 85, retired as a music director at one of the churches where her husband was minister, according to the lawsuit. The First Liberty Institute had threatened a lawsuit last August, claiming the couple had been threatened with eviction.
The lawsuit says the couple “seeks to vindicate” their rights “to practice their religions in their own homes and community areas … as guaranteed by the federal Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) and Virginia Fair Housing Law.”
The lawsuit targets the owner of the Evergreens, Community Realty Co. and its president, Douglas Erdman, and staff at the retirement community.
The company did not respond Friday to a message seeking comment on the lawsuit, but when First Liberty Institute made its complaint public last August, Erdman issued a statement saying the claims did not “accurately portray the situation.”
He did not elaborate, other than to say that the company adheres to housing laws and that the Hauges “at no point ... had been denied the right to practice their religion in their apartment, nor have any other of the residents.”
According to the lawsuit, the couple moved into the age-restricted apartment complex in 2017, and problems started soon after when they began holding Bible studies in a community room and in their and others’ apartments in the complex.
“These friendly efforts and religious convictions were met, however, with hostility from Defendants … and a small group of fellow residents,” according to the lawsuit, which claims that residents verbally accosted the couple and on one occasion a resident “rammed one Bible Study participant with her own walker.”
The lawsuit claims staff “decided to discriminate against the Hauges and others on the basis of religion, by first banning residents from publicly saying grace before their meals, and then prohibiting the Hauges from hosting Bible Study anywhere at The Evergreens, including their own apartment, under threat of eviction if they further engage in this particular religious practice.”
The Evergreens staff at one point, according to the lawsuit, sent a notice to the couple stating that they were operating an unauthorized business and had “breached the terms of your Lease by engaging in conduct which has caused, and continues to cause, serious and substantial disturbances with other residents of the Community.”
The notice stipulated that the couple was not to continue “Bible study class, religious movie screenings and ‘counseling’ sessions” whether in the community room or their apartment.
The lawsuit says the couple stopped holding Bible study and saying grace in order to stay at the Evergreens, but adds that landlords are not allowed to prohibit religious activities.
The couple’s attorneys say the Evergreens staff posted statements on the community bulletin board that the couple had not been “denied the right to practice their religion in their apartment” and that the company “fully complies with all fair housing laws.”
The couple initially filed a Fair Housing Act complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
HUD referred the case to the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, according to the lawsuit. Under the umbrella of the latter department, the Real Estate Board initiated an investigation, but the status of the probe is not mentioned in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says the couple has not been allowed to renew their lease and instead continues residing at the Evergreens on a month-to-month basis.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages and asks the court to prevent the Evergreens and other defendants from violating the housing laws, to rescind the prohibition of religious activities in the community room and to “cease all forms of religious discrimination.”
No trial date has been set.