Thursday, July 26, 2012

Is a homeless shelter a church?

In an interesting piece of litigation up in Lexington, Ky., a church is suing the city when the city revoked a permit to operate a homeless shelter in a business district. Much of the concern is raised by the neighbors, and the city took action revoking a permit it had originally issued. The city says it wasn't told the true nature of the use. Take a look at a local newspaper article. Here's the lawsuit itself.

The shelter houses 75 men and women from 7 pm until 8 am, seven days a week. However, it provides bible study session several times a week and traditional services on Saturday mornings.

Is it a church, or a shelter, or can they be the same?

Here in Tennessee, this question has already been answered. In Caps v Nashville Union Mission, the Tennessee Court of Appeals expressly held that the Mission was a church for purposes of the zoning regulations. In that case, the Tennessee Court of Appeals expressly concluded that the Union Mission, which  provides housing for literally hundreds of men and women each night in Nashville, was a church.
In this case, we find adequate material evidence to support the BZA’s conclusion that the mission is a church. The applicable definition of “church” was “a building set apart for public esp. Christian worship.” The record before the BZA included photographs of the pulpit and large chapel inside the Mission, which seats over 400 people. Chapel services are held at the Mission 365 days a year. In addition, crosses are displayed and engraved on the outside of the building. Although the Mission offers food, shelter, and other rehabilitative services to the public as well, an individual cannot take advantage of some of these services without attending chapel services. There are 13 ordained ministers on staff at the Mission, and 142,496 different individuals attended the Mission’s evening chapel services in the year prior to the BZA hearing. Approximately 120 individuals signed a petition which stated, “I attend regularly and consider the Nashville Rescue Mission my church.” Also, the Mission’s charter of incorporation, bylaws, and other documents were submitted which confirmed the religious nature of the organization.
This case was decided on Dec 3, 2008, before the adoption of the Tennessee Religious Freedom Restoration Act, TCA § 4-1-407. With that strong legislation now adopted in our state, the result in the Caps case is probably permanently reinforced. 

The interesting question is whether the same reasoning would apply if the church were in a suburban residential district?

Photo from the Lexington Hearld-Leader. Take a look at the paper's article linked above and the comments to get an idea of the controversy.

November 8, 2012 Update:

The Community Inn was given a stay of execution if you will when the local zoning board granted it another 4 months (through the winter) to remain open. The city and the inn are going to work together to find a suitable location for the use. Article here.

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