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7:45am — Suit Alleges Religious Discrimination

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Watchdog group claims former Las Cruces apartment manager favored members of his church.

The Border Fair Housing and Economic Justice Center, a civil rights watchdog group based in El Paso, has sued the owner of a Las Cruces apartment complex and its former manager, claiming the manager favored tenants who belonged to his church and discriminated against those who didn't, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported today on its Web site.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Las Cruces last month, also claims that JL Gray Inc., owners of the Desert Palms Apartments on Picacho Avenue, turned a blind eye to the alleged discrimination, the Sun-News reported.

The former manager, Kevin Smith, wouldn't comment directly on the case, but in an e-mailed statement to the Sun-News strongly denied the allegations.

Smith and his wife co-founded Life's Purpose Church, which according to court documents and the church's own Web site, doesn't have a building of its own but holds services in community centers or school buildings, the Sun-News said.

Among the allegations: There was a Desert Palms resident who attended Smith's church who repeatedly failed to pay rent, but nonchurch members would promptly receive eviction notices when they got behind on rent payments, according to the Sun-News.

The lawsuit also alleges that Smith would delay addressing maintenance needs of nonchurch members and would fast-track applications of prospective tenants who agreed to join the church, the paper said.

Border Fair Housing also claims that Smith fired an on-site manager for cooperating with the group's investigation of tenants' complaints, the Sun-News said.

Anibal Olague, executive director of the group, said complaints from 15 residents led to a five-month investigation and ultimately the lawsuit, according to the Sun-News.

Olague also alleges that when tenants approached JL Gray Inc., the complex's owner, with their concerns, they were ignored or retaliated against, the Sun-News said.

JL Gray Inc. didn't respond to a request for comment, the paper reported.