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Philip Reid’s small dog, Paolo, is hardly the kind of animal to strike fear in the hearts of children. Yet two African Muslim girls were anything but delighted as Reid walked the Boston terrier-pug blend on a leash at his culturally diverse, mixed income neighborhood.

“The girls were running by, and they screamed when they Saw him, and I said ‘He’s not going to hurt you'” recalls Reid. “They said it’s a religious thing, and I was kind of Shocked.”

Reid did his homework and learned, sure enough, many Muslims avoid dogs, believing them to be unclean animals. In fact, Muslims who come into contact with dog saliva are obligated to go through elaborate cleansing rituals.

Not at all offended by what he discovered, Reid began spreading the word among other dog owners in the community.  “People started to get an understanding,” he says.  “So now when you see a Muslim family coming down, we’re very cognizant, making sure the dogs are held close.

Conflicts involving culture haven’t always been resolved so easily.  In spring 2008, Ram Balasubramanian, a Hindu resident fell afoul of his community association’s rules when he painted a greeting symbol called a kolam on his driveway as part of a religious ceremony at his home.

When he allowed the large drawing to remain, the South Village Homeowners association deemed it an illegal alteration to his property and threatened him with $900.00 in fines, according to The Washington Post. 

Balasubramanian says he felt it would be disrespectful to his religion to erase the symbol.  However, he says he and the board reached a compromise in January.  He paid a $50.00 fine and agreed to paint over the symbol.  Now he characterizes the dispute as a tug-of-war over rules that could have been defused through better communication. 

“One thing I learned for sure is that anything that you touch outside your home – Whether it looks beautiful, whether it looks nice, whether the neighbors love it, whatever it may be – the HOA is the local police.  If they say no, it’s no,” says Balasubramanian, who is a real estate agent. 

If there is a lesson to be learned, it’s that the most routine disagreements that surface between community association boards or managers  and individual residents can take on added complexity when cultural misunderstandings, language barriers or religious beliefs are thrown into the mix.  Making things even tricker are anti-discrimination laws at the federal, state and local level that can trump association restrictions and create legal hazards for board members. 

And no surprise here: Highly publicized conflicts with foreign-born residents can put associations in a bad light, even if they’re in the right.  “You don’t want to be on the 6 o’clock news – I leave that as my clinching argument when I’m talking to a board,” says attorney Marvin Nodiff – a member of CAI’s college of Community Association Lawyers (CCAL). 

A potential showdown loomed last year for one of his clients, the board of a nonprofit that oversees a swimming pool for four condominiums.  Two Muslim women had used the pool garbed head-to-toe in burqas to protect their modesty.  But because pool rules obligated users to wear “swim apparel,” some board members thought it was a violation to allow fully clothed people into the water. 

The U.S. Fair Housing Act is considered the default law barring discrimination against protected classes, including people from foreign countries.  But its guarantees of “reasonable accommodation” in housing are generally for people with disabilities. Nodiff began scouring state and local laws and zeroed in on a county regulation that seemed applicable.  It required clean swimwear at pools, but allowed an exception for clean outer-clothing worn for religious reasons. 

Nodiff declined to say how he advised the pool trustees, but said he typically tells boards to pick their battles wisely.  “If you win (a court fight), what do you win?  You could fracture a community by insisting on enforcing (rules for) what are relatively minor problems,” he says. 

At the Blackstone subdivision in suburban Atlanta, the previous manager sent violation notices to Indian residents who displayed outdoor lights to celebrate Diwali, or the Festival of Lights, in mid-fall, past board president Rajul Patel says.  The homeowners association inherited generic restrictive covenants from the developer that only allowed outdoor decorations during the traditional American holiday seasons of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.  He says the board is now advising its manager to ignore the rule about outdoor decorations because it makes little sense, given the neighborhood’s dominant Indian makeup, Patel says. 

For boards that try to be inclusive about holiday decorations, they may be opening a Pandora’s box.  A few years ago, a condominium building placed Christmas and Hanukkah decorations in the main lobby, but raised the ire of an African-American woman who felt Kwanzaa had been slighted by ommission.  During a meeting, board members personally apologized to the resident and offered to make amends, but the damage was done.  The woman eventually moved out. 

The safest thing is just not to do anything regarding seasonal displays.  There’s like 4 million holidays all over the world.  And if you miss one, in a culturally diverse area, somebody could say, ‘You’re not honoring my holiday.’ 

Professionals agree that communication is the key to heading off major problems where cultural misunderstandings are concerned.

by  Mike Ramsey

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