Social worker bans religious conversation

By Dave Tombers

A social worker has taken the idea of “qualifying” for federal benefits to a new level by telling a resident of a HUD-subsidized building that she no longer had the right to free speech because of the government’s contributions to the building’s operations.

The attack on religious freedom came in a Minneapolis suburb, where Ruth Sweats told WND that she was told she has “no freedom of speech.”

Sweats told WND that she and a friend were sitting in a corner of the common area at the Osborne Apartments in Spring Lake Park, Minn., when she says the building social worker, Rachelle Henkle, “dramatically approached her with a raised voice” and said, “You can’t talk like that here!”

Since Sweats was having a private conversation with a friend and simply had read the introduction paragraph from her Bible describing the Book of Revelation, she was shocked. She said her friend had asked her about Revelation, and she opened her Bible and began reading the introduction that precedes the book.

Sweats, a member of a Messianic church congregation, said she frequently reads the Bible, studies it with friends, prays, and even hosts Bible studies in that very room, yet for some reason the social worker’s ire was triggered when she read, “These that bear the mark of the monster and are not registered in the Lambs Book of Life.”

Sweats told WND she informed Henkle that she was entitled to have a private conversation with a friend, and in fact had done so many times, saying, “I have freedom of speech, you know.”

But she says the social worker claimed that free speech doesn’t exist when it’s in a HUD-funded building, and that in order to talk about the Bible it had to be in an apartment, not the common area.

Sweats said the tenant handbook outlines fair housing regulations but she wasn’t shown where any regulation would allow someone to silence her private conversation about her religion with a friend.

Matt Sharp, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, says that his organization now represents Sweats and that he has sent a letter to the building’s management company, Ebenezer, informing them of their discriminatory actions.

“In their apparent effort not to discriminate, it’s possible they may be discriminating against Sweats,” Sharp told WND.

Sharp said the building management’s position is simply incorrect and that HUD has repeatedly made statements announcing that funding is not in jeopardy because of private religious expression.

“Simply because the government provides a benefit with public funds does not mean that all ‘mention of religion or prayer’ must be whitewashed from the use of the benefit,” Sharp wrote in the letter to Ebenezer.

ADF would like to see Ebenezer “do the right thing,” Sharp said.

“The right thing to do out of respect for the senior citizens – many of whom fought or saw their spouses fight in wars to defend our nation and the freedoms upon which it is built – is to remove the ban on religious expression in the commons area.”

WND contacted building management for the Osborne Apartments and spoke with Kate Edrey, who identified herself as the manager.

When asked about the situation, she opted to read a statement prepared by Ebenezer that said:

“We do not restrict expression of faith in our community. Residents host Bible studies, one-on-one conversations, and other religious activities in our community. Staff will step in when residents are being hostile or intimidating to other residents no matter what the type of conversation. While we do not intend to get into a conversation about the exact circumstances of this dispute, we want to share these practices with you.”

Edrey would not identify if what Sweats was reading could be considered “hostile or intimidating,” and said that the prepared statement was all she was authorized to say. She also said that Henkle is away on vacation.

This isn’t the first time that seniors in similar settings have faced discrimination.

In June the ADF announced that a resident in a senior complex in Pennsylvania complained after the apartment announced that a longstanding practice of praying before a meal would now be banned.

The ADF explained, “For many years, senior citizens at the Downingtown Area Senior Center would start lunch by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by prayer. In April, the center reportedly announced that, under its new policy, seniors are prohibited from offering a prayer at the beginning of lunch and may only engage in a ‘moment of silence.'”

“The center apparently claimed the prayer ban was necessary because the meals are partially funded by the federal government and because one senior had found another person’s prayer offensive.”

After the ADF stepped in, the center said a “misunderstanding” led to the confusion, and seniors would be allowed to resume their prayers.

WND has also reported on several instances of senior housing projects restricting the rights of residents from celebrating Christmas.

Residents in one Florida complex were told that they couldn’t sing Christmas carols, while residents in a Massachusetts complex were told that they had to remove a nativity from the commons area.

In Mechanicsburg, Pa., residents at the Bethany Towers were told that they could not display religious decorations in the common area, or even on their own doors to their private apartments.

According to the report, the residents of Bethany Towers typically decorate their doors all year round with cards, stuffed animals, and the like, but the management drew the line when it came to Christmas

The complexes relented after representatives from the Liberty Council stepped in.

Ebenezer has not responded to the ADF demand as of yet, but Sharp is hopeful that the results will be the same as in other cases where a misunderstanding about federal funding leads to discrimination.

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