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Homeless ministry faces zoning roadblock

A Tennessee city orders a church’s ministry to homeless men “cease and desist”


iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Homeless ministry faces zoning roadblock

A sober living house in Westmoreland, Tenn., is fighting back against a city zoning crackdown that could strangle its ministry.

The Father’s House in Westmoreland, Tenn., provides housing and other support for men after they leave prison or rehabilitation centers. About 610,000 people are released from U.S. prisons each year. Hundreds of thousands of former inmates start from square one while also struggling with addictions, often falling into old behavioral habits. The Father’s House offers 10-12 dorm-style beds with a self-serve kitchen, laundry machines, and interview preparation and transportation to jobs.

In August, the city sent the transition house a cease-and-desist letter claiming that it violates the local zoning designation. Nashville law firm Anderson & Reynolds and the Texas-based First Liberty Institute teamed up to demand the city of Westmoreland withdraw its cease-and-desist letter. In a letter to city officials, lawyer Steven Anderson said that the city’s order violates the Tennessee Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act bars the government from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion unless proven necessary to advance a compelling governmental interest.

Westmoreland zoning ordinances only allow transient housing to operate within a “highway service district” or a “central business district.” The Father’s House sits within a “low-density residential district,” in which buildings may only be used for residential homes, agriculture, churches, schools, cemeteries, recreational facilities, and government buildings. Since the ministry’s building is attached to a church, The Father’s House argues it qualifies as a church and is eligible for an exemption.

Anderson accuses the government of “an unconstitutional exercise of governmental authority,” under the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. The letter further highlights the government’s potential violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious institutions from governmental land regulations thwarting the exercise of their religion.

“The housing and program provided by The Father’s House to men who are becoming better and more productive citizens should be encouraged, rather than prevented,” Anderson said. “The Father’s House welcomes the opportunity to work with the city to resolve this issue.”

First Liberty Institute counsel Ryan Gardner described the ministry as “an essential part of meeting the needs of its community,” asserting that Westmoreland “is violating both state and federal law by blocking The Father’s House from fulfilling its religious mission.” Gardner said that the city’s cease-and-desist order forces the ministry to turn people away because the city allowed only the program participants living in the house at the time of the order to remain.

Other homeless shelters and ministries have dealt with burdensome city codes and permits. North Wilkesboro, N.C., officials denied the city’s only homeless shelter the permits required for operating in a new building over concerns about sidewalk use and traffic patterns. The shelter fought the board’s decision in federal court and won in December 2021, opening its new building by late 2022. “The board apparently believes—incorrectly—that it can say the magic words ‘traffic and safety’ and this court will rubber stamp the classification no matter the facts,” concluded U.S. District Judge Kenneth D. Bell. “But such deference cannot be an excuse for the court to abdicate its duty to protect the constitutional rights of all people.”

In August, Las Vegas authorities demolished a community of tiny homes designated for homeless occupants, saying the structures did not meet minimum size standards and other stringent housing code regulations. The New Leaf Community, a local nonprofit, built the houses on private land with volunteer labor. After the demolition, one man told a local news station, “Now I sleep on the [profanity] sidewalk because of this!”


Christina Grube

Christina Grube is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute student course.

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