Federal Lawsuit Challenges District of Columbia’s Funding of Religious Mission

For Immediate Release

ACLU
Contact: 

Will Matthews, ACLU National, (212) 549-2582 or 2666; media@aclu.org
Joe Conn, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, (202) 365-8507; conn@au.org
Art Spitzer, ACLU of the Capital Area, (202) 457-0800; ArtSpitzer@aol.com

Federal Lawsuit Challenges District of Columbia’s Funding of Religious Mission

City Should Not Fund Ministry That Compels Homeless Men to Attend Religious Services

WASHINGTON - The
ACLU of the National Capital Area, Americans United for Separation of
Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal
lawsuit today challenging the District of Columbia's plan to grant more
than $12 million in public property and cash to the Central Union
Mission, a religious homeless shelter.

The Mission conditions shelter for
the homeless on participation in Christian religious activity,
including mandatory attendance at nightly church services. Its director
has stated, "We are in the business of converting people to Christ.
That's what we do." The Mission only employs Christians and requires
volunteers to declare their church affiliation.

The lawsuit, Chane v. District of Columbia,
was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Two of
the plaintiffs are homeless men in the District of Columbia who do not
go to the Mission because of its requirement that the homeless
participate in religious services.

Six other plaintiffs are local
taxpayers - including members of the clergy - who assert that the
proposed gift of cash and property from the District of Columbia to the
Mission will unconstitutionally support religious activities. The
taxpayer plaintiffs include the Right Rev. John Bryson Chane, Episcopal
Bishop of Washington, and the Rev. Joseph M. Palacios, a Roman Catholic
priest and professor of sociology at Georgetown University.

"The Central Union Mission has a
constitutional right to preach the gospel and recruit disciples for its
faith, as it's been doing for 124 years," said Arthur B. Spitzer, Legal
Director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area. "But it is a
constitutional violation for the District of Columbia to support that
preaching with millions of dollars of public money and public property."

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn,
Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and
State, "Government should not fund a homeless shelter that requires
residents to take part in religious services and discriminates in
religious hiring. Religious activities should be funded with the
voluntary donations of the faithful, not tax dollars." 

The Council of the District of
Columbia voted in July to pay $7 million in cash and convey a downtown
property known as the Gales School to the Mission, in exchange for far
less valuable property in the Petworth neighborhood. The transaction
will result in a net financial gain by the Mission of more than $12
million.

"People who are homeless lack
options for finding shelter and are particularly vulnerable to
religious coercion," said Alex J. Luchenitser, Senior Litigation
Counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "The
District should use its tax funds to ensure that sufficient shelter
space exists for all who are homeless here, not just for those who are
willing to go to church services every night."

The lawsuit's plaintiffs ask the
court to block the transaction, or alternatively, to require the
Mission either to agree not to engage in religious activities at the
Gales School, or to pay fair market value for the property. The
plaintiffs do not object to the shelter's religious activities as long
as they are not supported by government funds or property.

The lawsuit notes that the mission
statement of Central Union Mission reads, "Our mission is to glorify
God through proclaiming and teaching the gospel, leading people to
Christ, developing disciples, and serving the needs of hurting people
throughout the Washington Metropolitan Area."

"The government shouldn't use
taxpayer dollars to underwrite religious indoctrination," said Daniel
Mach, Legal Director for the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and
Belief. "This is a bad deal for the city, its homeless population and
the U.S. Constitution." 

Lawyers on the case include Spitzer,
Luchenitser, and Mach, as well as Ayesha N. Khan, Legal Director of
Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Frederick V.
Mulhauser, Staff Attorney with the ACLU of the National Capital Area.

Additional information about the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief can be found online at: www.aclu.org/religion/index.html

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