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How Religious Groups May Use Their Facilities to Help the Homeless During the Pandemic

An increasing number of state and local governments are issuing “shelter-in-place” or “stay-at-home” orders. But what does that mean for those who have no shelter or home in which to stay? The homeless so often depend on shelters that are already at capacity, making social distancing all but an impossibility. Thankfully, officials are not shutting down existing homeless shelters. But with rising unemployment, the number of homeless is only going to increase as will the need for more shelters.

During times of crisis, America’s religious communities have so often risen to meet the needs of those less fortunate. Right now, some of those religious communities are dealing with government mandates which bar them from assembling for worship. Most are more than willing to cease gathering in their houses of worship for the time being and have transitioned to alternative ways of exercising their faith—virtual services and prayer meetings for example. While these alternatives may temporarily meet the needs of those in the religious community, their currently unused houses of worship could serve the needs of the homeless. Increasing the space that is available to those in need would serve the greater societal goal of promoting social distancing. And it would be easier for the homeless to shelter in place if they had a place in which to shelter.

Each year, usually during the winter months, many houses of worship try to open their facilities to the homeless. And each year, municipalities try to shut these efforts down through zoning and building code enforcement. Even when government officials are sympathetic to the needs of the homeless, they often argue that they have no choice but to enforce the law.

But civic and religious leaders alike are rarely familiar with the one law which can help them resolve the conflict between municipal regulations and religious exercise. That law is a federal law known as RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Person Act. Because RLUIPA is a federal law, it supersedes local land use regulations and can provide municipal officials a basis up on which to accommodate or exempt religious exercise from otherwise neutral and generally applicable ordinances.

Section (a)(1)of RLUIPA provides that no state or local government shall impose a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a religious assembly or institution, unless the imposition of the burden on that assembly or institution is both “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “the least restrictive means” of furthering that interest. RLUIPA also authorizes local governments to exempt religious institutions from land use regulations which substantially burden their religious exercise.

Courts across the country have already recognized that sheltering the homeless is a form of religious exercise and have stopped municipalities from substantially burdening efforts to use houses of worship for shelter . In the context of the current crisis, similar cases can be avoided if religious institutions and municipal officials familiarize themselves with their rights and obligations under RLUIPA. RLUIPA provides the legal mechanism by which religious freedom can be exercised, the rule of law upheld, and the needs of the homeless met. At this time, the homeless need religious and government leaders that are willing to work together to help them find somewhere they can shelter in place.

If you are part of a religious organization that would like to provide shelter for the homeless or a civic leader looking to work with religious groups to free up more space for the homeless in your community, please contact us. You may also be interested in our free guide highlighting the rights religious institutions enjoy under in RLUIPA.

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