- Associated Press - Friday, March 6, 2015

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - City and county governments across Washington will lose some ability to restrict church-hosted homeless encampments under a bill members of the House of Representatives passed Friday.

The measure, which passed with bipartisan support on a 56-42 vote, guarantees that churches will be able to host encampments for at least eight months of the year, though local governments can prohibit the camps from lasting any longer. Towns, cities and counties would be able to limit the camps to lasting only four months at a time, and require a buffer of up to three months between each encampment.

“It’s good for our community,” said the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland. “It respects our religious institutions - synagogues, mosques fellowship halls, churches - that need, and must, and through history have been able to provide sanctuary for those in need.”

The bill follows several years of local governments separately making local laws that have given Washington an uneven legal landscape for the “tent cities” of homeless that some churches and towns welcome. There are six such encampments in King County, and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray earlier this year proposed a plan to allow three new one-year tent encampments for up to 100 people on city property. Other places have attempted to establish restrictions by citing health and safety concerns, though the state Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that Woodinville had obstructed a church’s freedom of religion when it refused to consider an application to host a homeless camp.

The bill received unified support from House Democrats, but it divided the chamber’s Republicans.

“Many of us on this side of the aisle feel that it is not appropriate to intervene in the relationship that exists between houses of worship and their local governments,” said Rep. Hans Zeiger, a Republican from Puyallup who voted against the bill.

The measure now heads to the Senate for consideration.

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