Church allowed to operate a temporary homeless shelter as part of its rightful property use; resolution prompts update to city code
Detroit—January 9, 2020—The recent settlementbetween the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church and the City of Lenexa, Kansas, is a classic example of the intent of RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000), according to Daniel P. Dalton, a religious property attorney who represents religious institutions throughout the country and is a co-founder of Detroit-based Dalton + Tomich. The speaker, legal writer and author of Litigating Religious Land Use Cases, who represented Shawnee Mission Church with local Kansas legal counsel Shook Hardy & Bacon, said this resolution addresses the right for churches to exercise their religious missions—including ones that involve hosting the homeless—on their properties.
“In this case, the Shawnee Mission Church did everything right,” Dalton said. “Church representatives met with the Lenexa City Planner, City Code Inspector, City Fire Marshal and City Fire Department, all of whom reviewed the proposal of the Church to partner with Project 10/20on a temporary basis to shelter homeless individuals at the Church. Officials subsequently responded that they believed the proposed ministry was permitted under the zoning code.”
According to Dalton, two events triggered Shawnee Mission Church to file a lawsuit:
1.) A letter from the Planning and Developmental Services Administrator rejecting the needed shelter and closing the homeless ministry of the Church.
2.) Upon follow-up to the letter, the Church discovering that the City Manager alone made this decision based on the City of Lenexa’s deliberate exclusion of homeless shelters in all zoning districts within its jurisdiction.
Shawnee Mission filed its lawsuit in the United States District Court of Kansas City, Kansas, on November 22, 2019. The Church also filed a Motion for an immediate Temporary Restraining Order or, in the alternative, Preliminary Injunction allowing it to fully exercise its religious mission to house the homeless on its property, on a temporary basis from December 1, 2019 through April 1, 2020, pursuant to RLUIPA, the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, the United States Constitution, and the Kansas Constitution.
“Shawnee Mission Church’s calling is to provide a welcoming refuge for those experiencing homelessness, and the City of Lenexa responded unlawfully by obstructing that mission through zoning,” Dalton said. “However, RLUIPA’s General Rule of no government imposing or implementing a land use regulation in a manner that inflicts substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, made the city realize they needed to come up with an agreement to address overnight homeless ministries—both straightaway and in the future – and that’s what they did.”
Following a settlement with the city on December 13, 2019, the lawsuit was dismissed and Shawnee Mission Church will be able to operate its homeless ministry. Dalton outlined the key points of the agreement:
“We are grateful to the Court for encouraging this settlement and look forward to partnering with the City of Lenexa to craft a mutually agreeable ordinance to address overnight homeless ministries in the future,” Dalton said. “In this case, RLUIPA gave us the power to defend and preserve this church’s right to serve the poor and vulnerable—an integral part of its mission.”
About Dalton + Tomich
Detroit-based Dalton + Tomich PLC is comprised of land use, denominational trust law, and business law attorneys. Serving as a partner to religious organizations, Dalton + Tomich is a national leader in religious property law land use, notably with cases related to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and denominational splits. Learn more about our services for businesses and religious organizations on our website.
The attorneys of Dalton & Tomich, PLC have the experience and the knowledge to work with you to develop a legal solution that helps accomplish your goals. Our collaborative approach has helped leaders like you grow businesses and banks, develop and expand churches, and build nonprofit organizations nationwide.
In my role as Administrative Bishop for the Church of God, quite often we are faced with issues that involve local governments and municipalities. Many of these issues that arise in dealing with entities are land use related. I have found Dalton & Tomich’s experience and expertise in this area to be a valuable resource and asset in every situation.
Never one time during a year-long litigation process did Dalton & Tomich demonstrate anything other than Christ-like professionalism. They managed the legal details, while we continued to do church. How they managed themselves, managed our case, and represented our church set the table for me and our church to be where we are today.
Dalton & Tomich’s expertise and experience helped us through a very difficult legal journey, ultimately achieving a favorable outcome. Their personal interest in helping us went “above and beyond” just the call of duty.