Mission Accomplished

City-Assisted Shelter In Washington, D.C., Drops Demand That Homeless Attend Religious Services After AU/ACLU Lawsuit

Like a lot of homeless people in Washington, D.C., Roy Crabtree just wanted a safe place to lay his head at night and three square meals a day.

Crabtree thought he had found those things at Central Union Mission, a large shelter serving the homeless in the nation’s capital. But Crabtree soon learned that bed and bread at the shelter came at a price: He had to attend religious services or Bible studies every evening.

Moreover, if you were willing to enroll in an intensive Christian-themed “spiritual transformation” class, you were guaranteed a bed in the shelter every night and you could eat three meals there. If you didn’t want to join the program, you had to take your chances in a line for a place to sleep – and might end up without a bed if the line ran long. In addition, those who did not sign up for the religious program were told to leave the shelter after breakfast.

As a private entity supported by donations, the Mission was free to impose these policies and promote religion. But in 2008, its practices fell under heightened scrutiny when the D.C. city government announced a plan to enter into a partnership with Central Union Mission.

D.C. officials proposed giving the Mission approximately $7 million in cash, as well as a historic property called the Gales School that is worth about $9 million, in exchange for property the Mission owned that was worth about $4 million. The exchange meant that the Mission would end up with $12 million in public support.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State expressed concern about the deal. When D.C. officials ignored letters from the group, AU joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union to file a lawsuit over the arrangement.

Plaintiffs were homeless people, D.C. taxpayers and clergy. (See “Deal Or No Deal?,” November 2008 Church & State.)

It took three years, but changes are coming to the Central Union Mission. Most notably, the Mission will no longer require the people it serves to attend religious activities as a condition of getting help.

At the same time, the city abandoned its original cash giveaway and building swap plan. Under a new arrangement, D.C. officials sought bids on a lease to reconstruct the Gales School and use it as a homeless shelter. Three bids were submitted, and the Mission was selected as the winning bidder.

The new plan calls for the Mission to lease the Gales School for $1 per year for 40 years, with an option to extend the lease by 25 more years. The Mission will be required to use the property primarily as a homeless shelter and will rebuild and maintain the Gales School, a dilapidated structure that is near collapse, at its own expense.

Most importantly, the lease prohibits the Mission from “requir[ing] any individual seeking [the Mission’s] services to participate in religious services or religious studies as a condition to receiving any service at the Leased Premises.” (The Mission, however, will be allowed to use the Gales School for voluntary religious activities.)

In light of these changes, Americans United and the ACLU on Oct. 13 voluntarily withdrew the Chane v. District of Columbia lawsuit. The groups said they will continue to monitor the situation but believe the new arrangement presents fewer problems.

AU said important progress clearly has been made.

“Organizations that want to mandate religion should rely on private donations, not taxpayer support,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “I’m glad that taxpayer dollars will no longer support religious coercion.”

Even if the lawsuit was not the only thing that caused the city to alter its relationship with the Mission, it undoubtedly played a part. The original deal city officials proposed began unraveling after the litigation was filed, putting the spotlight on the arrangement.

At the same time, officials at the shelter said they began to reassess their policies concerning required church attendance.

“We did a self-examination and decided we are compelled by our faith to serve the poor, but we never want to compel faith on the part of the poor to receive our services,” Mission Director David Treadwell told The Washington Post.

The Mission’s desire to convert homeless men to its brand of Christianity isn’t surprising. Such evangelical activity has been part of the facility’s work since its founding in 1884. Ministry officials spoke proudly of their Mission Statement: “To glorify God by proclaiming the Gospel and meeting the needs of hungry, hurting and homeless individuals and families in the Washington Metropolitan Area.”

On its website, the Mission asserted, “Our work at Central Union Mission is to proclaim the Gospel, lead people to Christ, develop disciples and work to meet the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of the people we serve.”

The Mission is obviously sincere, but AU asserted that the shelter’s goals are clearly evangelistic in tone and that makes it a poor candidate for taxpayer support.

Indeed, for many years the Mission relied solely on private donations and church support. Even today, its website says, “It is truly the support of normal people, organizations, churches and businesses that makes our work at Central Union Mission possible.”

Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans United’s senior litigation counsel, said that even after the Mission represented to the D.C. Council that attendance at religious services was no longer required, AU received reports from men who went to the shelter that religious activities were still mandatory.

For that reason, he said, Americans United did not withdraw the suit until the lease between the Mission and the city was signed.

“Until a lease was signed, we didn’t know for sure what would happen,” Luchenitser told The Washington Post.

Luchenitser said Americans United will continue to keep an eye on things.

“The Mission must not provide favorable treatment to homeless persons who sign up for religious programming or otherwise pressure the homeless in any manner to take up religion,” Luchenitser said in an AU press statement. “If the Mission does so, we could end up back in court in short order.”

The lawsuit was litigated by Luchenitser, Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, and Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, along with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and ACLU of the Nation’s Capital Senior Staff Attorney Fritz Mulhauser.

Lynn said the case involving the shelter is an interesting microcosm of the problems that can arise when government tries to help “faith-based” entities. Organizations like the Central Union Mission that include a lot of religion in their programs are always better off relying on voluntary support, Lynn said.

Even in tough economic times, Lynn noted, Americans remain extremely generous, and houses of worship and religious charities continue to be popular. In fact, a recent report by Giving USA, a center based at Indiana University that studies philanthropy, found that in 2010, Americans voluntarily donated more than $100 billion to religious institutions.

“When you consider the private funds that are available, there’s really no reason for a religious group to turn to the taxpayer for support,” Lynn said. “Not only is it unconstitutional, but I believe it threatens the independence and vitality of faith-based groups in the long run.”