Charlottesville, Va. — Having defended the right of churches and other charitable institutions to provide shelter and food to the homeless and needy, especially during frigid temperatures, The Rutherford Institute has issued a Constitutional Q&A on “Helping the Homeless” to aid those who might encounter opposition from local government agencies. In issuing the guidelines, Rutherford Institute attorneys cited incidents from years past in which, for example, a church that allowed a homeless woman to stay in a trailer on its own property was cited for maintaining a campground without a permit, a church that allowed homeless persons to sleep on the church lawn was charged with improperly maintaining a boarding house, and a collection of churches that took turns providing the homeless shelter within the churches during the winter months were told they needed a permit to do so.
“Churches and other religious institutions have a spiritual mandate to care for the needy and downtrodden, and should be supported—not hindered—in their efforts to do so,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “With government budgets currently stressed beyond capacity, any organization, church or otherwise, that wants to provide shelter for the homeless in their community should be welcomed with open arms.”
For those who are homeless, finding a warm place to shelter during frigid winter temperatures often becomes a matter of survival. Unfortunately, charitable efforts to provide shelter and food to the homeless, especially during the winter, are often thwarted by local governments through the use of zoning laws that restrict or prohibit the provision of services to the need. Increasingly, homeless individuals are being harassed, arrested and run out of towns by laws that criminalize homelessness and those who help the homeless. For instance, one 90-year-old founder of a Florida nonprofit that feeds the homeless faced a fine of $1000 and up to four months in jail for violating a city ordinance that makes it a crime to feed the homeless in public.
Thus, as temperatures drop, it’s important for churches and other organizations to be aware of the bureaucratic red tape which can unfortunately interfere with their mission to feed and shelter the homeless. More and more, land use laws and zoning regulations have been used to issue citations against churches trying to aid the poor. Often, these citations and the demands associated with them are not valid. As The Rutherford Institute’s guidelines point out, in addition to the protections afforded by the First Amendment, the Constitutions of each state also protect the right to free exercise of religion. In some instances, the protection provided by a state constitution may be greater than that provided by the First Amendment and may limit the authority of local officials to restrict religious-based care toward the homeless and needy. Additionally, a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) provides additional protection to churches respecting the use of their land for religious purposes.