It had all the elements of a Washington story--a single woman, a chance to buy into a cooperative apartment building, a town with a reputation for liberal housing laws -- yet Jane L. Wagner, a 33-year-old special education teacher in the D.C. school system, got hamstrung by a 50-year-old provision in the co-op's bylaws prohibiting buyers with children.
Wagner, almost five months pregnant when the 3024 Porter St. NW cooperative association turned her down last spring, went to court alleging discrimination. Superior Court Judge Frank E. Schwelb, calling it the first case of its kind here, said the District's Human Rights Act prohibited discrimination in housing because a person has children, co-ops were included, and ruled in her favor.
Schwelb noted that the scope of the act, which was amended in 1980 to include Wagner's predicament, "is as broad as, if not broader than, any equal opportunity law or ordinance which the court has seen after 17 years of specialization in the area.
"One cannot read the civil rights legislation in this jurisdiction without concluding that the D.C. council has attempted to prohibit invidious discrimination wherever it has even arguably raised its ugly head. This city, in which a majority of the citizens are descended from slaves who came to these shores in bondage, has emphatically and uncompromisingly placed itself on record ... against second-class citizenship for anybody."
Said Wagner in an interview: "I'm the kind who always stops in when I see the open-house signs. I didn't see this as a crusade. I wanted a place to live, and this fit the bill."
According to John T. O'Neill, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, which represents 25,000 condominium and cooperative owners, most have some sort of restrictive provision involving children and probably have not made changes since the law took effect.
Gary W. Swindell, the co-op's lawyer, said the co-op's residents "really weren't in a discriminatory mood, or belligerent, or had anything against Wagner, they just wanted to see if this was going to stand up."
"There is absolutely no question that the management of condominiums, co-ops and apartment houses in the District of Columbia must reconsider totally their plans for dealing with people with kids," said Francis W. Redmond, who represented Wagner.
Schwelb, incidentally, who has in the past quoted Shakespeare on juvenile justice, Keats on trash, and Gilbert and Sullivan on letting the punishment fit the crime, continues his chronicles of life at the court in his own special way.
In deciding the Wagner co-op case described above, Schwelb introduced his opinion this way:
"Despite the complementary biblical directive to mankind to 'be fruitful, and multiply and replenish the earth,' (Genesis, chapter 1, verse 28) and to 'suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God,' (The Gospel According to St. Mark, chapter 10, verse 14), this enchanting capital of the land of the free and the home of the brave is the locale of many dwellings which cater to adults only . . ."
In a recent child support case, Schwelb noted:
"When Yale men (and now Yale women) gather at graduations and other nostalgic occasions, they express their fondness for the days of yore by roaring, to the melody of Die Wacht Am Rein, the following nostalgic chorus:
'Bright college years with pleasure rife
The shortest, gladdest years of life
How swiftly are ye passing by
Oh, why doth time so swiftly fly?'
"Joyous as college years are to the carefree students, however, they often create financial and other burdens for his or her beleaguered parents . . .
"Tuition and other expenses are high not only at Yale but at the University of Pittsburgh as well, and that melancholy fact has led to the present controversy . . ."
And finally, in ruling on inadmissible evidence in a juvenile case:
"One cannot unring a bell; after the thrust of the saber it is difficult to say forget the wound; and finally, if you throw a skunk into the jury box you can't instruct the jury not to smell it."