Two groups filed a joint lawsuit Thursday challenging the District’s plan to grant more than $12 million in public property and cash to a Christian homeless shelter, claiming the deal violates the separation of church and state.
The D.C. Council agreed in July to give the Central Union Mission a historic building near the U.S Capitol, formerly known as the Gales School, and $7 million to renovate it.
In exchange, the city would have received a less valuable property on the 3500 block of Georgia Avenue.
According to the lawsuit, filed in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Central Mission in exchange for shelter requires the homeless to participate in Christian religious activity — including mandatory attendance at nightly church services.
Two of the plaintiffs are homeless men in the District who claim they were required to participate in religious services when they visited the mission. Six other plaintiffs are local taxpayers, including members of the clergy, who assert that the deal would unconstitutionally support religious activities.
“The main problem is that the Central Union Mission is doing ‘the Lord’s work,’ and the government is not supposed to be paying to do that,” said Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the Nation Capital Area. “Serving the homeless, and feeding the hungry is a way to carry out their religious mission to bring people into their religion.”
The Rev. Barry Lynn, a minister in the United Church of Christ and executive director of American United for the Separation of Church and State said, “In America no taxpayer-supported institution should be able to get away with religious discrimination.”
Mr. Lynn also said: “Were this mission solely funded by private donations, these practices would be legally acceptable. But this is no longer the case.”
The lawsuit confronts issues relating to the Bush administration’s faith-based initiatives, which allow the government to give money to religious groups for non-religious purposes such as providing shelter, food or employment to the homeless.
The Central Mission responded to the lawsuit by declaring that the mission’s policy “is to provide meals and shelter without the consideration of religion or participation in religious activities. It is a travesty that this lawsuit will merely impede the supply of urgently needed food, shelter and medical services to our friends and neighbors who most desperately need it.”
Roy Crabtree stayed at the Central Mission shelter between December 2005 and March 2006. He said that men looking for shelter and a meal had to attend a religious service every night. He also said there was an option to enroll in a “Spiritual Formation” class, and that those enrolled in the formation class received preferential treatment.
According to the lawsuit, one-third of the mission’s beds were reserved specifically for men in the class.
Mr. Crabtree said that although he thought the people of the mission were passionate and caring, the land swap was unconstitutional because of the mission’s religious activities.
Eric Sheptock, the other homeless plaintiff in the suit, said that he was strongly pressured to attend the mission’s nightly Bible study course. He joked that while he is a “man of faith,” he is not comfortable attending church seven days a week.
Spokesmen for the District were not available to comment.