A Florida family is locked in an intense battle with a homeowners association over the demand that religious statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary be removed from their lawn.
Enock and Ines Berluche claim that the Shingle Creek Reserve at the Oaks Homeowners Association, Inc. threatened legal action if the family refused to remove the 2-foot statues, which were recently rejected by the governing body for not being "harmonious with the surrounding properties."
In a letter sent to the family by Martell & Ozim, P.A., a law firm retained by the association, Enock and Ines Berluche were told that they are in violation of the community's "covenants and restrictions." The demand was made clear: "Remove your unapproved statues from the front of your home."
"Accordingly, demand is hereby made for you to immediately remove your unapproved statues from the front of your home," read the letter, dated July 30, 2014. "Your failure to do so within seven (7) days of this letter will result in legal action."
The statues at the center of a debate over homeowners association regulations (Liberty Counsel)
It should be noted that the family apparently first put the statues up without getting the association's permission. But when the couple learned that they had violated the rules, they reportedly filed the proper paperwork, but the statues were subsequently rejected.
"Please provide the Association in writing the stated religion, the religious significance of the statues, and why these statues cannot be relocated to a different location on the Lot or enclosed behind a fence out of street view," the letter continued.
Rather than comply with these demands, the Berluche family reached out to the Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal firm, to seek representation and assistance.
In a letter addressed to attorneys for the association, Liberty Counsel defended the family and questioned whether the rejection of the lawn statues might be rooted in religious discrimination.
The text also addressed the conservative law firm's belief that lawn ornaments on other properties in the neighborhood — which are reportedly not religious in nature —could not possibly have all been formally approved by the association before being put on display.
"Even if the decorations in the attached photos were formally approved, the fact that they were approved and the statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Virgin Mary were not, especially after Mr. Berluche's submission of formal application in order to cure any alleged violation is highly suggestive of religious discrimination or of simply unreasonable behavior on the part of the ARC," read a letter from the Liberty Counsel.
In a press release addressing the matter, Liberty Counsel cited a different property that has "thirteen potential violations of the homeowners association rules on yard ornaments" to note the purported irony in the opposition to the two religious statues on display by the Berluche family.
"Why all of these ornaments are approved but Mr. and Mrs. Berluche’s statues were denied is clearly a matter of viewpoint discrimination," Liberty Counsel chairman Mat Staver said in a statement.
Staver and his organization are demanding that the homeowners association allow the statues and rescind the demand that the family remove them. If the association refuses, the Berluches might proceed with legal action.