BOSTON – After a landlord was convicted of pushing her Muslim tenant down a flight of stairs, a judge ordered her to respect the rights of all Muslims and to take an introductory course on Islam. Now the highest court in Massachusetts is being asked to decide whether the judge violated the landlord's constitutional rights.
The Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments next month in a case that poses interesting legal questions at a time when the country is grappling with anti-Muslim backlash following deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, both allegedly carried out by radical Muslims.
The case centers on Daisy Obi, a 73-year-old ordained minister from Nigeria who is the pastor of the Adonai Bible Center in Somerville, just north of Boston. In April 2012, Obi rented an apartment in her multi-family home to Gihan Suliman, her husband and five young children.
Suliman complained about the heat and electricity not always working, while Obi complained Suliman appeared to have 12 to 15 people living in the apartment at one point.
Suliman testified that about a month after she moved in, Obi stood on the stairs outside Suliman's apartment screaming anti-Muslim insults.
The following month, while Suliman was taking her baby out of the car, she said Obi yelled anti-Muslim sentiments at her other children.
Then, about a month later, Suliman said Obi accused her of ringing her doorbell, shouted at her and pushed her. Suliman said she fell backward down 15 to 20 stairs, hitting her face on the banister, cutting her lip and tearing a ligament in her shoulder.
While sentencing Obi last year, Judge Paul Yee Jr. called Obi "the landlord from hell" after pointing out that she had harassment prevention orders issued against her by two other tenants.
He sentenced her to two years in jail on the assault and battery charge for pushing Suliman but required her to serve only six months, with the remaining 18 months suspended if she complied with certain probation conditions.
"I want you to learn about the Muslim faith," he said. "I want you to enroll and attend an introductory course on Islam.
"I do want you to understand people of the Muslim faith, and they need to be respected. They may worship Allah ... but they need to be respected."
Obi vehemently denied making any anti-Muslim statements to Suliman or pushing her. She testified she was inside her apartment praying when she heard a knock at the door from the police, who arrested her.
Obi said in a phone interview that she believes Suliman had a vendetta against her because she refused to allow her to let more people live in her apartment.
"I've never, ever made a rude remark against her," she said.
"Why would I do that? I have three Muslims living in the house now."
Obi also said she believes Suliman hates her because she is a Christian.
Suliman did not respond to messages left at her home and workplace.
Obi's lawyer argues the probation condition that she learn about the Muslim faith "burdens Dr. Obi's free exercise of religion."
"It is beyond dispute that the Constitution guarantees that the government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise," attorney Kimberly Peterson wrote in a legal brief.
Prosecutors argued in their brief that the order to take a course on Islam is not coercive because it does not require her to adopt a religious practice or to attend a Muslim religious service, but merely to educate herself.
Two legal experts not involved in the case differed on the argument.
New York Law School professor Robert Blecker said the order does not appear to violate Obi's constitutional rights.
"We're not requiring her to embrace any (religious) principles. We're requiring her to learn about them," Blecker said.
Suffolk University law professor Christopher Dearborn disagreed, saying that although Obi's conduct may be considered highly offensive, he believes the judge should have ordered her to attend anger management classes or counseling instead of ordering her to take a course on Islam.
"It's requiring her to participate in something that she would be strongly opposed to on religious grounds," Dearborn said.
The court is scheduled to hear arguments Jan. 8.