D.C. Shelter to Stop Requiring Homeless to Attend Religious Services

October 13, 2011 10:14 am

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ACLU and Americans United Drop Lawsuit After Shelter Changes Operations and D.C. Government Abandons Plan to Pay Shelter Public Funds

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WASHINGTON – A religiously based homeless shelter in Washington, D.C. will no longer require the homeless to attend religious services as a condition of getting food and shelter, and the D.C. government no longer plans to pay tax dollars to the shelter as a result of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“No homeless man should have religion forced upon him in order to keep from going hungry and sleeping on the street,” said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital. “We’re pleased that the D.C. government will no longer be supporting such religious coercion.”

“Organizations that want to promote religion should rely on private donations, not taxpayer support,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, “I’m glad that taxpayer dollars will no longer be handed to a religious rescue mission.”

The organizations filed the lawsuit in July 2008 after D.C. officials proposed giving the Central Union Mission approximately $7 million in cash, as well as a $9 million property called the Gales School, in exchange for property worth about $4 million. The plan would have ultimately provided the Mission $12 million in public support. At the time, the Mission required homeless men to attend Christian religious services as a condition of getting food and shelter.

After the groups filed the lawsuit, D.C. and Mission officials abandoned the transaction. The District instead sought bids on a lease to reconstruct the Gales School and use it as a homeless shelter. Three bids were submitted, and the Mission was selected as the winning bidder.

The Mission will lease the Gales School for $1 per year, for 40 years, with an option to extend the lease by 25 more years. The Mission will also be required to use the property primarily as a homeless shelter and will rebuild and maintain the Gales School at its own expense.

The lease prohibits the Mission from “requir[ing] any individual seeking [the Mission’s] services to participate in religious services or religious studies as a condition to receiving any service at the Leased Premises,” though the Mission will be allowed to use the Gales School for voluntary religious activities. The ACLU and Americans United will monitor the new developments to make sure the lease arrangement meets constitutional requirements.

“This arrangement is much better than the giveaway D.C. officials had originally proposed,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “The long-term lease continues to present constitutional concerns, however, and we intend to monitor it vigilantly to determine whether its implementation complies with the Constitution.”

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