Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Homeless Shelters at Green Street Church

The Tennessean reported this morning that the Green Street Church of Christ has been cited by the Metro Department of Codes Administration for a zoning violation by allowing homeless people to live in tents adjacent to the church. The church is in an industrial zoning district and surrounded by industrial uses, but the homeless "camp" does not comply with zoning. The comments from the Metro Legal Department (Tom Cross) sound as though the city would like to accommodate the church’s mission if possible.

This is another one of those areas where the Tennessee Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-1-407, would seem to apply. The attorney for the church, Tripp Hunt, mentioned the applicability of RLUIPA, the federal act, but as we have discussed here in the past, the Tennessee version is much more powerful. Again, the main reason is that under the federal act, you must demonstrate that there is a substantial burden on religious activities, and the federal courts interpret the phrase “substantial burden” as a fairly high burden which is somewhat difficult to overcome.

The Tennessee act however defines “substantial burden” as anything that “inhibits or curtails religiously motivated practice.” At least to me, that seems like a much easier burden to overcome. If part of the Green Street Church of Christ’s religious mission is to help accommodate and care for homeless people, then a zoning ordinance which prevents them from helping them on-site may very well inhibit or curtail the church’s religious practice.

Obviously, one of the difficulties here is that since most churches are located in residential areas, and since many residential neighborhoods would object to having homeless people moving alongside them, there is a conflict that will surely arise.

In any event, this Codes case certainly seems like an interesting case to watch. It will be even more interesting if the church employs the Tennessee Religious Freedom Restoration Act in its defense as well as the federal act.

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