"We are in the business of converting people to Christ."
The ACLU of the National Capital Area (now the ACLU of the District of Columbia), Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on Sept. 18, 2008, 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 DC. "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 for the Mission of more than $12 million. There is also no limit on what the Mission can do with the property later. (The Mission is selling its current "shelter' property to a condo developer—for $7 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."