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McCready v. Hoffius, et al.: OK to Refuse to Rent to Unmarried Couples in Michigan

In McCready v. Hoffius, et al., the Court of Appeals of Michigan held that a landlord who refuses to rent to unmarried persons does not violate the Michigan Civil Rights Act (the "MCRA") because unmarried cohabitation is not protected by that law. John and Terry Hoffius, a married couple (the "Landlords"), own residential rental property in Jackson, Michigan. In response to the Landlords’ advertisement, two unmarried couples inquired about renting the property. In each instance, the Landlords refused to rent to them because they were not married and this conflicted with their religious beliefs.

The couples filed separate complaints with the Jackson Fair Housing Commission and they filed separate lawsuits in circuit court, both claiming that the Landlords had violated the MCRA by discriminating against them based on their marital status. The court reached the same conclusion in each case - that unmarried cohabitation is not protected under the MCRA. On appeal, the two cases were consolidated.

The appellate court examined the MCRA, the relevant section of which states that:

(1) A person engaging in a real estate transaction, or a real estate broker or salesman, shall not on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, familial status, or marital status of a person or a person residing with that person:

(a) refuse to engage in a real estate transaction with a person."
The term "marital status" is not defined in the statute. The court
presumed that when the MCRA was enacted, Michigan’s legislature
was aware that unmarried cohabitation is a misdemeanor under that
state’s Penal Code. The court reasoned that the legislature would not
have intended the MCRA to protect criminal conduct, so it concluded
that the statute does not protect unmarried cohabitation; it declined "to
recognize the Civil Rights Act as preventing housing discrimination
against unmarried couples and at the same time legitimizing criminal
conduct.

The potential tenants argued that the need of society to provide equal access to housing outweighs the Landlords’ religious belief that they should not rent to unmarried persons. However, since neither of the trial courts had addressed this issue, it could not be addressed on appeal.

While McCready was a case of first impression in Michigan, other states have considered this issue and some have reached the opposite result. The McCready decision references cases from several other jurisdictions including California, Alaska, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Minnesota which have addressed this issue. As the McCready court observed, in California for example, the case Smith v. Fair Employment & Housing Commission reached the opposite result, but that court did not have to deal with a state statute that criminalized unmarried cohabitation.

McCready v. Hoffius, 593 N.W.2d 545 (Mich. 1999).