Winter will soon be here and with it another round of headlines which read “City Shuts Down Church’s Homeless Ministry.” Every year, these stories pop up all across the country. Their facts are often the same, and they often end with men, women, and children put back on the streets.
Fortunately, the ending to many of these stories can change if more religious and civic leaders become aware of the rights religious-based homeless shelters have under the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Person Act, a federal law often referred to by its acronym RLUIPA (pronounced ruh-loopa).
This is how the typical story tends to go. As temperatures drop, a religious group is moved to open its doors to the men, women, and children looking to shelter from the cold. Many churches have buildings that go largely unused during the week and spaces that can be easily converted to provide shelter from the cold and even a warm meal. As word spreads about the ministry, community reaction is mixed. Many are delighted to see the homeless have a place to go. Others simply want the homeless to go away.
After a few neighbors complain, municipal officials investigate and then move swiftly to shut the ministry down. The religious group cries foul in the court of public opinion and refuses to shut its doors. The municipality responds by filing suit in a court of law and cites various zoning and building code provisions. Reporters then pick up on the compelling human-interest story and press the politicians for an explanation. Some appeal to the rule of law. Others claim they are just looking out for the well-being and safety of the homeless. After all, how safe could it be to sleep in a building that lacks fire sprinklers or emergency exit doors? It doesn’t matter that ten out of ten homeless would rather take their chances in a heated building than in a parked car, under a bridge, or on a park bench during the dead of winter. The zoning and building codes must be enforced. No exceptions. These temporary homeless ministries are then shuttered after the religious group decides it can no longer fight City Hall. Some run out of the funds to fight. Some have little-to-no idea how to fight—even if they have the will to do so.
Everyone would benefit from a better understanding of the rights religious-based homeless shelters have under RLUIPA. Because Dalton & Tomich is nationally known for defending the right of religious organizations to use their buildings in accordance with their religious beliefs and values, we receive calls from across the country about what can be done, or in many cases, what should have been done. Here are just five things we tell them:
If you are part of a religious organization running a homeless shelter and seeking to start a homeless ministry this winter, please contact us. You may also be interested in our free guide highlighting how religious institutions can level the playing field in RLUIPA.
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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.