Deal Or No Deal?

District Of Columbia Land Swap With 'Faith-Based' Mission Hurts Homeless And Violates Constitution, Says AU Lawsuit

During his three months at Central Union Mission, Roy Crabtree wanted to have a bed every night. He wanted to have three meals a day. And he wanted to be able to use the elevator to carry all his belongings up four flights of stairs.

But these benefits at the homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., were reserved for those willing to join the Mission’s Spiritual Transformation Program, a 12- to 18-month “rehabilitation” program for “men who seek restoration through a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

“There was constant pressure to join this religious program, in the form of benefits granted to people who joined it, and benefits denied to people who wouldn’t,” Crabtree said. “Men who were in the program had a reserved bed, while men who were not in the program did not, and had to get in line every afternoon to seek a bed. Men who were in the program got three meals a day at the Mission, while men who were not in the program had to leave the shelter after breakfast and could not come back until the daily intake in the late afternoon.

“In general, men who were in the program were allowed to use the elevator to get from the basement or first floor up to their sleeping quarters, but men who were not in the program were not allowed to use the elevator,” he continued. “Climbing up four flights of stairs with all of your possessions can be a very difficult thing after a day on the streets.”

Central Union Mission began its social services in 1884 and has usually functioned with only private funds until this year. It was the ministry’s prerogative to carry out its stated goal to “convert people to Christ,” since it operated on its own dime.

That is until now. The Council of the District of Columbia voted in July to pay $7 million in cash and convey a downtown property known as the Gales School, valued at $8.93 million, to the Mission in exchange for a far less valuable property in the District’s Petworth neighborhood, which is valued at only $3.79 million. The transaction will result in a net financial gain to the Mission of more than $12 million.

Despite this government funding, the Mission will continue to “glorify God through proclaiming and teaching the gospel, leading people to Christ, developing disciples, and servicing the needs of hurting people through the Washington Metropolitan Area.”

According to the Mission’s Web site, at every meal, hungry persons served by the Mission “hear about the love of Christ” and receive “an encouraging Word from the Bible.”

The Mission also requires all those sleeping at the shelter to take part in church services, and all employees must be Christians. Nothing in the terms of the transaction requires the Mission to end these practices once receiving taxpayer funds.

“This is the worst possible combination — a faith-based organization that requires participation in religious activities as the price for the services it provides,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “And now it is about to receive a windfall of tax assistance. This is not right and violates fundamental principles of fairness.”

That’s why Americans United teamed up with the Americans Civil Liberties Union of the National Capitol Area and the national ACLU office to file a federal lawsuit against the city, asking the court to block the transaction, or alternatively, to require the Mission either to agree not to engage in religious activities at the Gales School, or to pay fair market value for the property.

The District’s actions in orchestrating this transaction seem to fit into a trend toward government-sponsored, faith-based programs, a trend President George W. Bush began with the establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Since Bush opened the office in 2001, 35 states, plus the District of Columbia, have added faith-based offices as the Bush scheme spread across the country. Both presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, have promised to extend the White House faith-based office as part of their election platform, although the two candidates promised different policies for implementing their plans.

This Chane v. District of Columbia lawsuit could serve as an important precedent limiting the activities of those offices and making sure that flagrant evangelism and discrimination in the provision of services doesn’t occur on the taxpayer’s dime.

Crabtree is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with another D.C. homeless man, Eric Sheptock, and a group of taxpayers, including members of the clergy, who object to taxpayer funding of religious proselytizing.

The Right Rev. John Bryson Chane, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, joined the lawsuit against the city to speak on behalf of clergy who disagree with government funding of religious groups.

“I support the separation of church and state,” Chane said, “and believe that our country’s Founding Fathers intended, through the First Amendment of our Constitution, to prohibit the use of public funds to support the propagation of any religious faith.

“I believe that public funds should not be used to support social service programs that proselytize or evangelize to their clients, coerce their clients to attend or participate in religious activities, immerse their clients in a religious environment, or otherwise tie the provision of benefits to participation in or exposure to religious activity,” Chane continued.

“I also oppose the use of public funds to support the employment practices of organizations that only hire employees of a particular religion or otherwise discriminate in employment based on religion,” he concluded.

For all these reasons, Americans United sent a letter to D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty in early August, asking for the city to halt the transaction. In the letter, Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser said this type of aid to a religious ministry violates constitutional principles of the separation of church and state and a D.C. statute that prohibits government aid to churches or religious institutions.

“[T]he Supreme Court and lower federal courts have repeatedly held that the government cannot finance or provide a building for a religious institution if the building is to be used for religious worship or instruction,” the letter stated.

“We recognize that Central Union has done a great deal of good… [and] the District faces considerable difficulties in addressing the needs of the homeless,” the letter continued. “But violating the Constitution and D.C. law is no answer to the District’s problems. …The District needs to find a way to allow the Mission to continue to help the homeless, without granting financial or other public aid to the Mission.”

The District responded in a letter by Andrew T. “Chip” Richardson, III, general counsel to the mayor, stating, “We do not support the conclusions that you have drawn. It is our position that the transaction is proper, serves valid public purposes, and does not violate any laws.”

The Mission’s Web site also discounts the financial benefits the transaction will provide to the Mission. The Mission says the valuation of the Gales School building at $8.9 million is exaggerated, considering it must be renovated and restored to historic preservation standards. It also contends that the Georgia Avenue properties in Petworth are worth more than $6 million, not $3.8 million. The Mission claims it will spend double the $7 million received from the city to renovate the building.

But prior to the lawsuit, the Mission recognized that this deal with the District would end with the Mission receiving government funding. At a meeting of the D.C. Council on July 17, 2008, Council Member Vincent C. Gray said to the Mission’s Executive Director David O. Treadwell, “So in point of fact this is receiving government funding, because the value of the property of Georgia Avenue versus the value of the property on Massachusetts Avenue, that redounds to your benefit. Is that right?”

Treadwell responded, “That is correct.”

Treadwell once prided himself and Central Union Mission on refusing government funding. When Bush began to push his faith-based initiative in 2001, Treadwell was skeptical.

“I just can’t see how the government’s got any business doing that,” Treadwell told Church & State (see “Faith-Based Backlash,” April 2001). “We’re like an extension of the church. I’ve heard the president say that he is intending to separate our religious work, but we are in the business of converting people to Christ. That’s what we do. We believe that’s the ultimate answer to their needs.

“Ultimately, our purpose is to glorify God and make disciples,” he continued. “We want to be known for integrity. I want to fulfill my mission with integrity. I don’t like to be in situations where I can’t support my mission.”

This sentiment is the same held by many clergy in the District. The Rev. John W. Wimberly, Jr., pastor at Western Presbyterian Church, wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post arguing that the city should not fund Central Union Mission.

“The Gales School deal knocks one more brick out of the wall that separates religion and state in the nation’s capital,” he wrote. “It is bad for the state. It is even worse for religion. If religious groups want protection from the state, we shouldn’t seek money from the state. We are talking out of both sides of our religious mouths.”

Unfortunately, once the faith-based funding landed in Treadwell’s lap, he no longer sang the same tune as Wimberly or his former self. Though he won’t change the religious activities of the mission, Treadwell now seems more than willing to accept the funding.

And that comes at the expense of taxpayers and the homeless, who will lose approximately 200 beds through this transaction. The Mission already planned for 170 beds at the Georgia Avenue location, and the District planned to house 150 homeless women at the Gales school, totaling 320 emergency shelter beds in the city. Now, with only the Gales School operating as a homeless shelter, where the Mission is expected to provide only about 100 emergency shelter beds, many homeless will be shut out.

And those who are unable to participate in the Mission’s religious activities will have limited places to go. Mayor Fenty recently closed the Franklin School shelter, which housed around 400 homeless men in downtown D.C.

“Unless the transaction is enjoined, many homeless men will likely be faced with a choice between sleeping on the street and staying at the Mission,” AU’s complaint stated.

Sleeping on the street could have been the fate for Crabtree. He says he was forced to leave the Mission in March 2007 because he could no longer attend religious services. He had developed phlebitis, an inflammation of the veins in the legs, and needed to elevate his legs for 20 minutes every hour he was standing.

“After dinner, I needed to go up to my bed to elevate my legs, rather than go to services,” Crabtree said. “But [a Mission pastor] did not think I should be allowed to skip services, and at times forced me to leave the shelter and at the end to lose my bed.”

Crabtree and other homeless people often lack options for shelter and become particularly vulnerable to religious coercion, which is what will happen in D.C. if this transaction goes through, said Luchenitser.

“The District,” he said, “should use its tax funds to ensure that sufficient shelter space exists for all who are homeless here, not just for those who are willing to go to church services every night.”