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Market Street Mission v. Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards

Decided: May 19, 1988.

MARKET STREET MISSION, RESPONDENT,
v.
BUREAU OF ROOMING AND BOARDING HOUSE STANDARDS, DEPARTMENT OF COMMUNITY AFFAIRS, STATE OF NEW JERSEY, APPELLANT



On certification to the Superior court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 217 N.J. Super. 56 (1987).

For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, O'Hern, Garibaldi, and Stein. The opinion of the Court was delivered by O'Hern, J.

O'hern

The question in this case is whether the Legislature intended that the fire safety provisions contained in the Rooming and Boarding House Act of 1979 (the Act), N.J.S.A. 55:13B-1 to -21, apply to religious organizations that provide rooming and boarding facilities to the needy.

We hold that the State has the power to impose public safety requirements on organizations, both religious and secular, that provide such services. We also hold that the Legislature did not intend a wholesale exclusion of religious organizations from those requirements of the Act that would not intrude on the religious rights of the groups' members. Rather, we believe that the selective exclusions afforded from the Act's otherwise broad coverage indicate that the Legislature intended that the Act achieve its secular purposes without infringing on the constitutionally protected interests of the religious organizations. Hence, we reverse the Appellate Division's judgment that the Legislature did not intend any of the Act's provisions to apply to religious organizations. We remand this matter to the Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards (Bureau) for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

I

Procedurally, the case arises from a 1984 inspection of the Market Street Mission by the Bureau, the agency then entrusted with the administration of the Act. The Bureau found several violations of fire safety regulations and ordered their

abatement. Following a reinspection in May of 1984, the Bureau assessed a penalty against the Mission in the amount of $3,050 for failure to comply with the earlier inspection report.

The Mission requested a hearing to contest the penalty and the jurisdiction of the Bureau. Although the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) upheld the jurisdiction of the Bureau and the penalty imposed, he declined to decide the equal protection and free exercise of religion issues raised by the Mission. The Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) affirmed the ALJ's decision. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the Commissioner's decision and held that "the Act is inapplicable to the operation of a charitable non-profit organization such as the Mission." Market St. Mission v. Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards, 217 N.J. Super. 56, 68 (1987).

The Appellate Division noted the broad powers that the Act grants to the Commissioner to promulgate regulations and to establish safety, service, and record-keeping standards. In particular, the court reviewed the Act's "Bill of Rights," N.J.S.A. 55:13B-17 to -21, which grants fifteen specific rights to all residents of rooming houses, boarding houses, and residential health care facilities. Market St. Mission, supra, 217 N.J. Super. at 63. One of the rights conferred by the Act is the freedom "[t]o practice the religion of [one's] choice, or to abstain from religious practice." N.J.S.A. 55:13B-19n. Another provision permits a resident to refuse to perform services for the institution except pursuant to a bona fide contract. N.J.S.A. 55:13B-19m.

The court found that many of the rights conferred by the "Bill of Rights" upon the residents of boarding houses "cover a variety of areas which are totally incompatible and entirely inapplicable to the Mission's purpose." 217 N.J. Super. at 69. The court also found that the Mission's purposes render inapplicable many of the regulations enacted by the Commissioner pursuant to the Act. Id. Those provisions permit the Bureau

to oversee and to review the day-to-day operations of rooming and boarding houses and would allow the Bureau to do such things as (1) "review the [Mission's] 'house rules' and void those it deems 'unreasonable,'" (citing N.J.A.C. 5:27-3.2), and (2) prevent the eviction of any resident except for "good cause" as defined in the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 to 61.12, which governs landlord-tenant relations (citing N.J.A.C. 5:27-3.3(c)). 217 N.J. Super. at 64. The Appellate Division reasoned that "[t]he imposition of the requirements and regulations of the Act would inflict havoc upon those institutions which have been rendering not only social, moral, and religious services, but also a civil service in filling the gap which government has ignored for these many years." 217 N.J. Super. at 68.

The court also noted that the Act focused on commercial enterprises and did not specifically refer to charitable non-profit organizations that provide spiritual counseling and work programs to the homeless and to socially troubled individuals; it concluded that the Legislature did not intend the Act to apply to such organizations. The court thus held that an exemption for such religious non-profit institutions as the Mission was a fair and reasonable implication of the Act as written. 217 N.J. Super. at 68-69.

We granted certification to review that decision. 108 ...


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