WASHINGTON - August 12 - The District of Columbia City Council’s plan to give $13 million in property and cash to Central Union Mission is unconstitutional and must be dropped, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
In a letter today to Mayor Adrian Fenty, Americans United warned that a long line of federal court decisions has barred government aid to religion. Therefore, the watchdog group asserted, it is unconstitutional for D.C. to engage in a land swap that gives a religious ministry a property known as the Gales School and public funds to repair it.
Central Union Mission provides assistance to homeless people but includes worship and other religious activity throughout its services.
Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “Helping the homeless is certainly laudable, but government officials must not violate basic constitutional mandates in the process. It is wrong for the city to subsidize religious worship and evangelism.”
The Americans United letter to the city, signed by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, urged the District to drop the proposed subsidy to the Mission.
“We recognize that Central Union Mission has done a great deal of good for the homeless and the hungry throughout its history,” wrote Khan and Luchenitser. “We also realize that the District faces considerable difficulties in addressing the needs of the homeless and that debates over the future of the Mission and other city shelters have already generated a substantial amount of controversy. But violating the Constitution and D.C. law is no answer to the District’s problems.”
The letter asks Fenty to respond to Americans United’s concerns by Aug. 29.
The Mission’s Web site clearly asserts its religious character. It says praise and worship are provided “whenever the mission doors are open.” Homeless people, it says, hear about Christ at every meal and get an “encouraging word from the Bible.” Guests are invited to take part in Bible studies and receive a “nightly invitation to receive the Lord as Savior.”
The District plans to convey its Gales School property to the Mission in exchange for property the Mission owns on Georgia Avenue. The value of the Gales School property is assessed at $8.93 million, while the value of the George Avenue property is assessed at $2.68 million. The property exchange alone thus benefits the Mission by $6.25 million.
The District also intends to provide $7 million in cash to the Mission for renovation of the Gales School (this amount may be reduced by up to $2 million that the District may need to spend itself in order to physically stabilize the property). The total contribution the District plans to provide to the Mission is thus $13.25 million in cash and property.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.