In 2010, a University of Nebraska at Kearney student, Brittany Hamilton, filed for a reasonable accommodation under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) to allow her to keep Butch, a 4-pound miniature pinscher that helps to alleviate Brittany’s anxiety and depression, with her in university housing. The university denied the request, citing a “no pets” policy and a lack of documentation. Following this denial, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) filed suit against the university on Brittany’s behalf, claiming the university to be in violation of the FHA. Last month, U.S. District Judge John M. Gerrard ruled against the university, citing that university housing is covered by the FHA and that “…simply put, students live in university housing for a significant time period and while they do, they treat it like home.”

This ruling is very significant for any young person suffering from a disability who uses an assistance animal and plans on attending a college or university.

In response to this ruling, ERC Executive Director Don Kahl wrote a letter to the editor of the Lincoln Journal Star:

Recently, a federal court entered an order against the University of Nebraska at Kearney, requiring it to allow a student to keep her doctor-prescribed therapy dog in her university-owned apartment.

The court’s ruling should be unremarkable in that the Fair Housing Act has prohibited discrimination for disability for 25 years. What is remarkable is that, in its zeal to win in litigation, the university argued that university housing, which is “home” for more than 2,200 individuals in Kearney alone (more than 10,000 university-wide), was not housing but was more like a “jail.” Not surprisingly, this position is not offered in university literature aimed at recruiting students.

As a proud alumnus of the University of Nebraska system, I can say with certainty that I never felt incarcerated during my university experience. But as the executive director of the Equal Rights Center, an organization that has fought for equal housing opportunity for 30 years, I am saddened that Nebraska’s leading learning institution would argue against the rights of the more than 57 million Americans with disabilities.

Assistance animals allow tens of thousands of people with disabilities equal opportunity to enjoy aspects of everyday life that people without disabilities take for granted. In ignoring this reality, the university does itself, and its students, a disservice.

In rejecting the university’s argument, the judge seized on a key point: “While UNK contends that some first-year students are assigned to university housing, they still choose to enroll at UNK, meaning that they have a freedom of choice that is quite unlike going to jail.” With its new-found argument, the university may find that some will exercise that choice and go elsewhere.

Read the letter on the Lincoln Journal Star’s website here.

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