By Terry Baynes
(Reuters) - A roommate-matching website that allows users to hunt for living partners based on gender and sexual orientation does not violate fair-housing laws that ban discrimination, a federal appeals court ruled on Thursday.
Fair Housing Councils in California sued Roommates.com in 2003, accusing the company of violating federal and state laws barring discrimination in the sale or rental of a residence. But the court refused to apply the laws to roommate relationships.
While the federal law was designed to prevent landlords from discriminating against tenants, the court found no indication Congress intended to regulate relationships inside the home.
"Taking on a roommate means giving him full access to the space where we are most vulnerable," Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote for a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
To prevent people from choosing roommates with compatible lifestyles would be "a serious invasion of privacy, autonomy and security," the panel ruled.
The fair housing groups accused Roommates.com of facilitating discrimination by allowing users to run online roommate searches based on gender, sexual orientation and number of children. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to advertise housing with any preference for race, sex or family status.
The groups argued that roommates are intermediaries between housing providers and prospective tenants and should not be allowed to inject prejudice into the housing market. A district court agreed, barring the website from soliciting information on users' sex, sexual orientation or family status.
But the appeals court found it unlikely that Congress, when it passed the law in the 1960s, intended women to have to accept men as roommates.
Eliminating preferences in roommate selection could also burden people's religious practices, the court found. An orthodox Jew shouldn't "have to worry about finding the honey-baked ham in the refrigerator next to the potato latkes," the panel said.
The appeals court overturned the injunction and $494,714 in attorneys fees the district court had ordered Roommates.com to pay the housing groups. Neither the Fair Housing Councils nor their lawyers responded to requests for comment.
(Reporting By Terry Baynes; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)