For Immediate Release
Joe Conn, Rob Boston or Simon Brown
Americans United and ACLU Lawsuit Causes D.C. Homeless Shelter to Stop Requiring Homeless to Attend Religious Services
Groups Drop Lawsuit After Shelter Agrees to Change Operations and D.C. Government Abandons Plan to Pay Shelter Public Funds
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 Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital.
Because of these changes to the terms of the deal, the groups today dismissed the lawsuit, which had challenged the District’s planned support of the shelter.
Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, “Organizations that want to promote religion should rely on private donations, not taxpayer support. I’m glad that taxpayer dollars will no longer be handed to a religious rescue mission.”
Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, explained, “No homeless man should have religion forced upon him in order to keep from going hungry and sleeping on the street. We’re pleased that the D.C. government will no longer be supporting such religious coercion.”
The organizations filed suit in July 2008 after D.C. officials proposed a plan to give the Central Union Mission approximately $7 million in cash, as well as a property called the Gales School that is worth about $9 million, in exchange for property worth about $4 million, thus providing 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 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.” 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.
Alex J. Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United, warned, “The Mission must not provide favorable treatment to homeless persons who sign up for religious programming or otherwise pressure the homeless in any manner to take up religion. If the Mission does so, we could end up back in court in short order.”
Said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, “This arrangement is much better than the giveaway D.C. officials had originally proposed. 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.”
The lawsuit, Chane v. District of Columbia, was filed on behalf of several D.C. taxpayers and clergy, as well as two homeless men who chose not to seek shelter at the Mission because of its requirement that they participate in religious services.
The lawsuit was litigated by Spitzer, Luchenitser, and Mach, along with ACLU of the Nation’s Capital Senior Staff Attorney Fritz Mulhauser and AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan.
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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.