The Pastor Willing to Go to Jail for the Homeless

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Religious Freedom: What’s All the Fuss About?

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by Ryan Snow

Nearly everyone supports feeding the homeless, except in their own neighborhood. At the same time, Americans profess the right of churches to construct places of worship, just not near them. What some have dubbed the “Not In My Back Yard” syndrome is all too prevalent in America. Congressional hearings held over a period of several years documented the widespread resistance and discrimination frequently experienced by churches when trying to exercise their right to assemble, operate and construct places of worship. Residents usually don’t want churches in their neighborhood because they “generate too much traffic, noise and congestion.” But commercial zones don’t want churches either because there is “not enough ‘synergy’ with surrounding businesses.”

Theoretically, churches have a constitutional right to assemble, but what good is that right if there is no actual, physical space where congregants are permitted to gather and reasonably conduct activities? It is great to believe in feeding the homeless, but if no one will let a church feed the homeless in their neighborhood, the end result is the homeless don’t get fed.

In 1984, the Western Presbyterian Church (“the Church”) began feeding the homeless in Washington D.C. in cooperation with a non-profit corporation, Miriam’s Kitchen. Five years later the Church made arrangements for a new building in Washington D.C., but didn’t mention its program of feeding the homeless when it applied for a building permit at the new site. By 1993, two groups had complained about the Church’s charitable activities. As a result, a zoning administrator for Washington D.C. forbade the Church from feeding homeless people on its property.

Washington D.C. Jail. © Max Pixel. Used with permission of Creative Commons Zero License.

In response, Western Presbyterian applied for an exemption from the ordinance, but the zoning administrator ruled that “feeding the hungry is an activity inconsistent with the operation of a church.” Western Presbyterian countered that taking care of the poor was a critical component of their faith mandated by the Bible.

Western Presbyterian had to appeal the zoning administrator’s decision to federal court, where Western Presbyterian won the legal battle. Federal Judge Stanley Sporkin chided the attorneys representing the District of Columbia for infringing on the Church’s right to operate and treating the Church as an “unsavory” part of the community. While Reverend Wimberly ended up winning his legal battle against the District of Columbia, it cost approximately $200,000 in legal fees.

Reverend Wimberly relied on RFRA to win his legal case in 1994. After the Supreme Court partially invalidated RFRA in 1997, Reverend Wimberly testified before Congress urging them to again enact legislation to protect religious freedom. He declared:

Without [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act], I would be in jail because I have to follow the law of God, not the law of the District of Columbia and I could not—I simply could not have allowed a government to come in and take out of my hands a plate of food that I’m giving to a hungry person. It would have made a mockery of my ministry, it would have made a mockery of our faith.

His testimony, and the testimony of other religious freedom advocates, fueled the enactment of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person’s Act. RLUIPA helps protect against the “Not In My Back Yard” syndrome by allowing a church to show they are “substantially burdened” by city ordinances if no “reliable, and financially feasible” property that meets the church’s needs is made available. Without RLUIPA, governments today would frequently be able to discriminate against churches through zoning ordinances even if no compelling reason existed for doing so.


Summary: Western Presbyterian v. Board of Zoning Adjustments

BACKGROUND: Western Presbyterian Church fed homeless people on its property, consistent with its religious beliefs. After receiving complaints, the zoning administrator ruled that the Church had to stop feeding the homeless.

ISSUE: Did the zoning administrator violate RFRA by ruling that Western Presbyterian could not feed the homeless on its own property?

OUTCOME: A federal court overturned the zoning administrator’s decision because it violated RFRA and thwarted Western Presbyerian’s exercise of religion.

IMPACT: After RFRA was partially invalidated, John Wimberly testified before Congress regarding the need to protect churches from zoning discrimination. His testimony along with many others fueled the enactment of RLUIPA.

Ryan Snow is a graduate of Brigham Young University - Idaho and SMU Dedman School of Law. He currently practices law in Texas and enjoys spending time with his family.

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