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Protecting Homeless Ministries and Shelters under Federal Religious Land Use Law

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:

  • Give Voice to the Voiceless. Don’t lose sight of why you wanted to start a homeless ministry in the first place. The homeless not only need a place to stay, but they also need institutions willing and able to stand up for them and advocate for their rights. In as much as you are standing up for your right to serve them, you are also standing up for their right to receive the services and shelter you offer.
  • Count the Costs. The costs include not only what it will take to make a space comfortable for those in need but also the costs of complying with any applicable building or zoning code provisions that may be triggered. Find out from the municipality what zoning and building code provisions may apply before you begin.
  • Retain Competent Counsel. Navigating and understanding zoning and building codes is not something every attorney is able to do. And even highly competent zoning attorneys may have no idea how to handle the intersection of federal religious land use rights and local land use regulations. RLUIPA provides significant protections for religious institutions and assemblies which seek to use their property in accordance with their sincerely held religious beliefs. We wrote the book on Litigating Religious Land Use Cases.
  • Assert Your Rights in Federal Court. If a municipality is threatening to shut your ministry down, it is almost always better to sue the municipality first in federal court before the municipality sues your religious organization in the local state court. Municipalities often have the upper hand in ordinance violation cases filed in the local state court. An adverse decision in state court may also bar you from seeking relief later in federal court. In federal court, the judge will be more familiar with protecting constitutional rights and applying federal law. So, if you are being warned that your organization will be sued, take the preemptive step, when possible, of filing first in federal court.
  • Be Prepared for a Fight. It is not easy to stand up to City Hall. Litigation is expensive, and most municipalities can afford to fight long and hard. It is not uncommon for a religious land use case to last several years. Fortunately, federal law provides that if a religious institution prevails in a RLUIPA suit the municipality will have to pay the religious institution’s reasonable attorney’s fees and court costs.

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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