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Condo owners told to remove religious statues

Posted: October 9, 2007
Condo owners told to remove religious statues
Peggy Wisnoski, a resident of Country Pointe at Coram, received a letter from her condo board ordering her to remove her St. Francis of Assisi from the community's common garden or face a fine. (Newsday Photo / Ken Sawchuk)

Gloria Gamarano's statue of the Virgin Mary has been with her family for more than 45 years. Until two months ago, the statue decorated the small garden that wraps around the condominium she owns at Country Pointe at Coram, a Medford gated community.

Now, though, it sits behind the home, a casualty of a potentially unlawful community rule at the complex that bans religious statues in gardens and other common areas.

Donna Gamarano, 50, who lives with her mother, had the statue relocated after the management company of the 240-unit condo complex threatened them in August with a fine if it was not removed in 10 days. "We can still enjoy her," Donna Gamarano said. "I just thought it was a sad thing. Why make an issue over that?"

The community's homeowner's association board approved the rule this year banning religious statues and bird feeders and birdbaths from all common areas. The gardens are considered common areas, as they are owned collectively, not by the individual homeowner. In those gardens, residents have placed other small statues, gazing balls, scarecrows and even plastic pink flamingos.

The rule has drawn questions about its legality from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which calls the ban prejudicial of people of faith, as well as from several residents and at least one expert on housing law.

Diane Houk, an adjunct professor at Columbia University Law School and executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center in Manhattan, said the ban on religious statues may violate residents' civil rights under the federal Fair Housing Act.

"A homeowners' association may prohibit individual owners from placing any objects in common areas and gardens," Houk said, "but when it imposes rules and fines against owners that only apply to displaying religious statuaries, then they may be violating fair housing laws that prohibit discrimination based on religion."

In response to criticism from the Catholic League, the board said the rule is "non-denominational" and does not encroach on residents' ability to freely practice religion.

Resident Arlene Crandall, president of the board, said that she and other members consulted a lawyer who specializes in housing law related to condominium communities and shaped the rule after those typical in similar communities.

Crandall compared common areas in the complex to public land within towns and said that only "typical decorations" should be allowed, as opposed to religious statues, for instance, which only appeal to one segment of the community's population.

The board acted within the law in approving the rule and was "generous" in allowing any decorations in the gardens, Crandall said. "We could make a decision you can't put anything," she said.

It is unclear how many residents have been asked to remove religious statues, if anyone has been fined or how much residents would be fined for a violation. Karen Bauer, the community property manager with the Bellmore-based Total Community Management Corp. and who issued the letters, declined to comment.

Peggy Wisnoski, a resident of the community since April, received a letter from Bauer in August after displaying a statue of St. Francis of Assisi in her garden. The statue contained a small birdbath, but Wisnoski said the letter ordered its removal because it is religious in nature. Various decorations, including a small statue, now decorate Wisnoski's garden. She moved the St. Francis statue behind the home to avoid the fine.

"It really annoyed me," said Wisnoski, an office manager for a chiropractic and physical therapy firm in Patchogue who said the statue was merely decorative. "It's not bothering anybody."

Two seemingly religious statues -- an angel gazing into a ball and a woman holding her hands as if she is praying -- stood in gardens last week. William Donohue, president of the Manhattan-based Catholic League, cited those statues in an Oct. 2 e-mail to the board and accused officials of targeting Roman Catholics with the ban. Crandall denied that claim, saying that violation letters may not yet have been sent or may have been initially ignored. Donohue had written once before, on May 18 to urge officials to "alter" the rules related to the ban of religious statues.

After sending the e-mail last week, Catholic League officials were awaiting a "reasonable" response from the board before deciding how to proceed, a league spokeswoman said. The league does not regularly "encourage or discourage" legal action, but has suggested that people see attorneys, she said.

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