"Christian Handyman" Ad Costs $8,000

West Bend - Apartment for rent, 1 bedroom, electric included, mature Christian handyman.

When she placed this for-rent ad in the Hartford Tunes Press in December 1990, Beverly Schnell never imagined she would wind up in court with almost $8,000 in legal bills and fines.

The ad caught the attention of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, a non-profit organization. The council files complaints with the Wisconsin Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations when it believes someone has violated the Wisconsin Fair Housing Law by placing an allegedly discriminatory ad.

In October, the state agency's Equal Rights Division determined that Schnell had discriminated on a sexual and religious basis by using the terms "Christian" and "handyman."

Schnell, a divorced woman who lives in a historic Hartford home, was looking for someone to rent the second floor and assist with remodeling. In return, she would give the person a break on rent, cook and do laundry once a week, according to the Milwaukee Journal.

"I had no idea and no intention of discriminating against anybody. The terms 'Christian' and 'handyman' are common terms that I thought everybody uses," Schnell said. Schnell is appealing the decision in Washington County Circuit Court.

"Both sides stipulated to the facts, which are that she didn't intend to discriminate," said Tom McClure, attorney for Schnell. Kathy Charlton, attorney for the Fair Housing Council, said Schnell broke the law, even if unintentionally.

"Handyman" a Discriminatory Term

According to the case records, the term "handyman" indicates sexual discrimination because it suggests to an ordinary reader that a "handyman" is a male and that a particular class person is "preferred." The word "Christian" could deter a non-Christian from applying for the rental unit, court records say.

Schnell used "Christian" in her ad because, as a Christian, she believes it is part of her ministry to support or aid other Christians. However, she never even asked the religion of the emotionally disturbed man who eventually became her tenant.

The Fair Housing Council took the case to the state agency, and later contacted Schnell to offer a settlement: If she agreed to pay $50 fine plus $500 for attorney's fees, the council would drop the case.

The Fair Housing Council was not trying to intimidate Schnell, Charlton said. The organization says it was just offering her an option.

Law Applies to Other Media, Too

Had the for-rent ad been placed in a church bulletin or on a grocery store bulletin board rather than a newspaper, Schnell would still be in trouble.

LeAnna Ware, director of the state's Civil Rights Bureau, said state law specified that discriminatory language couldn't be used in an ad or any similar request for a tenant that was displayed in public view.

Case Received National Attention

The Milwaukee case has received unusual national attention. Misinformation in the November 24, Milwaukee Journal, was copied in a December 13, Wall Street Journal editorial. Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko contributed to the confusion in a December 7, column. William R. Tisdale, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council explained it well in an appearance on the TODAY show January 7. The Fair Housing Council had some strong supporters who wrote letters in its defense including Bernard Kleina of the HOPE Fair Housing Center, and Michael P. Seng of the John Marshall Fair Housing Legal Support Center.