A University of Wisconsin student has filed a complaint against Lumen House on the basis of discriminating against renters based on their religious statuses.
Nicole Niebler, who serves as president of UW’s Atheists, Humanists & Agnostics organization, filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission in Madison. She had considered renting an apartment with Lumen House, located at 142 W. Johnson St., for August 2017 before she saw the difference in price for non-religious and religious tenants.
In an Oct. 12 statement, she alleged Lumen House, a Catholic-run housing facility, makes non-practicing Catholics and non-Catholics pay $1,200 more in rent each year.
Lumen House, which is owned by St. Raphael’s Congregation, offers rental scholarships to tenants if they are approved by the Roman Catholic Church and participate in qualifying religious activities. The rental scholarships deduct $100 in rent each month.
To secure the discount, Lumen House requires the tenant be approved by Father Eric Nielsen, who serves as the director of the St. Paul University Catholic Center. Afterwards, the rental scholarship forms must be turned into Forward Management, Inc., which manages and leases the property to tenants.
In addition to requiring approval from Fr. Nielsen, under the scholarship, tenants must participate in religious activities in the first two months of their lease period.
Some of those activities, according the rental scholarship form, include leading Bible studies or participating in mission trips.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said these rental practices are “inappropriate” and “coercive.”
“This is outrageous and it’s totally illegal,” Gaylor said. “This is really offensive to those who aren’t practicing Catholics.”
FFRF, a Madison-based state and church watchdog organization, is currently helping Niebler investigate and file the complaint, Gaylor said. The group’s staff attorney, Patrick Elliot, assisted Niebler in filing her complaint.
Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, places of public accommodation cannot discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or age. Public accommodation can be defined as either government-owned or privately-owned and operated facilities, services and buildings.
Under Madison’s Equal Opportunity Ordinance, places of public accommodation cannot provide or advertise discriminatory rental rates on the basis of one’s religious, non-religious or student status.
In addition to discriminating against non-Catholics, Elliot noted in the statement that Forward Management, Inc. and St. Raphael’s Congregation also gives preference to UW students — a violation of Madison’s Equal Opportunity Ordinance on the basis of student status.
The Lumen House must lease 10 percent or less of its units to non-UW students. Once they meet the quota, they refuse to rent to non-students, according to the statement.
Since Niebler will graduate from UW in May 2017, she also is limited in signing a lease at Lumen House as a non-student.
While Niebler will not be renting from Lumen House next year, she will still be moving forward with her complaint. Gaylor encouraged students who were paying the extra $1,200 a year to file a compliant as well.
Tammy Lange, an agent with Forward Management, gave Niebler a tour of the apartment building. Upon request, she denied to comment on the matter.