PHILADELPHIA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed suit today to defend the right of Shenkel United Church of Christ (UCC) in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, to practice its religious beliefs by providing temporary emergency shelter to the homeless during the winter.
North Coventry Township, where the church is located, has forbidden the church to use its facilities for this purpose.
"Providing temporary, emergency shelter for people in need of a warm, safe place to sleep is one of the ways Shenkel United Church of Christ has sought to be faithful to Jesus' commandment that we love our neighbors," said Rev. Bonnie Moore, the church's pastor. "We are filing this lawsuit only as a last resort as we seek to be the church we believe God is calling us to be - a church that is faithful to the Biblical mandates of justice and love."
Because of unmet need for temporary emergency shelter in the area, several years ago Ministries at Main Street started and coordinated a program through which a network of local churches agree to take homeless individuals for one month each on a rotating basis during the harshest winter months. As part of the ministry, guests are transported to and from the host churches, remain in the building between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., and are supervised by at least two adults who remain awake throughout the night.
Shenkel UCC decided to participate in the Ministries at Main Street program in the winter of 2007-08. The church had been involved in a similar effort run by Montgomery County called "One Night at a Time" in February 2002, 2003 and 2004 without incident.
As a courtesy, Shenkel UCC notified North Coventry Township Manager Kevin Hennessey that they would again be providing shelter for the homeless for one month in the winter. Immediately Hennessey contacted Rev. Moore and told her the church was not permitted to house homeless individuals under the township's zoning law and building code. Shenkel UCC was therefore unable to participate in the homeless ministry program during the winter of 2007-08.
Over the next year, the church and township officials participated in ongoing discussions about whether the township would allow the church to conduct its homeless ministry at its church facilities. To date, the township has refused to allow the church to provide temporary shelter for the homeless.
"The right to freely and openly express religious beliefs in words and deeds is guaranteed and protected by the Constitution and federal law," said Louis R. Moffa, Jr., of the law firm Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, LLP, one of the attorneys representing the church. "The government may not impose harsh restrictions on the exercise of that right, and we believe North Coventry Township has done just that in this case by preventing Shenkel United Church of Christ from fulfilling one of its essential ministries in caring for the homeless."
The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania, charges that North Coventry Township and its officials violated the church's religious-liberty rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits government entities from imposing land use regulations that substantially burden the exercise of religion, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and Pennsylvania's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
This lawsuit is similar to one the ACLU-PA filed late last year against the Jefferson County Borough of Brookville, which also used local zoning laws to prevent the Just for Jesus Homeless Outreach Challenge, a ministry of the First Apostles Doctrine Church, to use the church's parsonage to provide shelter to the homeless. The court order authorized the church to resume housing the homeless. More information about the Just for Jesus suit can be found here.
In addition to Moffa, Shenkel UCC is represented by Witold Walczak, Legal Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and Mary Catherine Roper, ACLU-PA staff attorney. More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint, can be found at: www.aclupa.org/shenkel