Rent And A Religious Landlord -- Refusal To Rent To Unmarried Couple Becomes Legal Saga

TURNERS FALLS, Mass. - It's a bumpy ride up a mountain road to the spotless home of Paul and Louise Desilets.

He is a local landlord, devoutly Catholic and contemplative. She directs Sunday school at Our Lady of Czestochowa Church. As a hospice visiting nurse, she comforts patients who choose to die at home.

But there are certain choices in life the Desiletses can't abide.

"Allowing fornication to occur on property I own places my eternal soul at risk," says Paul, seated in his living room near a 2-foot statue of the Virgin Mary.

Instead, Desilets, 41, has put himself at legal risk by refusing to rent an apartment to an unmarried couple.

That would be Mark Lattanzi and Cynthia Tarail.

Their anti-discrimination suit is entering its fifth year in Massachusetts and sparking a national debate about fair housing, religious freedom and sexual mores. At last count, 24 groups - from Focus on the Family to Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders - had filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the matter pending before the state supreme court.

With 3 million unmarried Americans living together, according to the latest census figures, all sides agree there is a lot at stake.

Not "looking to find trouble"

Lattanzi came to this Connecticut River village in 1989 as a Vista worker organizing tenants to buy buildings and convert them to cooperative housing.

Now, at 27, he is a local coordinator for a private project against housing discrimination. "We didn't go out looking to find trouble. We went out looking to find an apartment," he says. "But the Desiletses seem to think their religious beliefs allow them to discriminate. And that seemed fairly illegal to us."

Tarail says that when she first contacted Paul Desilets, she told him that she and Lattanzi would be sharing the apartment. When Desilets asked if she had plans to marry, Tarail says she stammered and answered that she didn't know.

"Then you'd be living in sin, and we don't go for that. Don't you know it's a criminal act to cohabitate and fornicate?" Tarail says she was told, or words to that effect.

Desilets remembers the brief conversation differently. He says he never talked about living in sin, but did say he did not want to rent to "an unmarried cohabitating couple."

Fornication, defined as sexual relations between unmarried people, is punishable by a $30 fine and up to three months in jail in Massachusetts, although no one remembers the last time it was prosecuted. Cohabitation was decriminalized in 1987. Since 1974, it has been against the law in Massachusetts to deny housing based on marital status. In Seattle and King County, a similar law protects housing seekers.

Lattanzi and Tarail ended up filing complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. In August 1990, the commission supported the complaints.

A month later, the state attorney general filed suit charging Desilets and his brother, Ronald, who is co-owner of the building, with violating anti-discrimination laws.

Help from Pat Robertson group

The brothers are represented by attorneys from the American Center for Law and Justice, a Virginia Beach, Va.-based law and education group founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson in 1991.

Arguing that sex without marriage is against the dictates of his Catholic faith, Paul Desilets says he simply exercised his constitutionally guaranteed freedom to practice his religion when he refused to rent to Lattanzi and Tarail. He made the decision not on the basis of marital status but on the basis of conduct he presumed would go on in the apartment and deemed sinful, he says. As a landlord with 21 units of housing in this community of 9,000 people, he has operated that way without previous lawsuits.

Nikolas Nikas, chief counsel for the Desiletses, added that, "This case is not about the Desiletses forcing their religious beliefs on others. It's about the attorney general seeking to force the values of the sexual revolution on the Desiletses."

But Assistant Attorney General Judy Beals, attorney for Lattanzi and Tarail, counters that, "This case is about whether or not our fair housing, and by implication our other civil-rights statutes, apply to people who don't agree with them on religious grounds."

Beals sees clear evidence of discrimination. The Desiletses' rental business does not constitute religious "worship," but is strictly "commercial and secular," she says.

Adds Lattanzi, referring to the fact that Paul Desilets is a carpet cleaner: "Housing is a commodity, like anything else. Does (Desilets) clean carpets only for people who agree with his religious values?"

"Cleaning somebody's carpet," responds Desilets, "has nothing to do with facilitating an immoral act."

Plans to get married

In 1992, the landlords won the opening round when a local judge, citing similar cases in California and Minnesota, ruled that the right to express one's religion took precedence.

Quoting from the 1991 California case, the court said religion is more than rituals limited to one's home or place of worship. It is also "a system of moral beliefs and ethical guideposts which regulate one's daily life," the court wrote.

In an appeal, the Massachusetts supreme court heard oral arguments in February and is expected to rule by June.

In the meantime, The Boston Globe editorialized in favor of the unmarried couple. The Wall Street Journal came out against them. In interviews on CNN and the "Today" show, the Desiletses, Lattanzi and Tarail reached a national audience. And last month, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in favor of tenants in a case with similar facts.

The Desiletses continue operating their rental business, and Lattanzi and Tarail are making plans to wed later this spring.

"Some people have said, `If you're getting married, what's the big deal?' But that's not the issue," said Lattanzi. "We don't want people telling us we have to be married. We want to be married when WE want to be."