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RLUIPA Protects Homeless Shelters within Churches – Our latest case in Kansas

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on November 22, 2019 Category: Land Use and Zoning, RLUIPA, RLUIPA Case Observations and Insights, RLUIPA Cases, Substantial Burden

Today we filed suit on behalf of Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church against the City of Lenexa, Kansas, who, has used zoning to deny the Church the ability to use its building to serve the homeless in Johnson County, Kansas.

At its heart, this case is about a church’s calling to provide a welcoming refuge for those experiencing homelessness, and the City of Lenexa’s (“Defendant’s”) unlawful obstruction of that mission through zoning in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc – cc-5, the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act and the United States Constitution and the Kansas Constitution.

Shawnee Mission Church has a long and proud history of ministering to the poorest and most vulnerable populations of Lenexa, Kansas and the greater Johnson County area. Over the last several years, the Church has advanced their ministry by partnering with a number of non-profit programs to reach those in need. This year, Shawnee Mission Church expanded its commitment to serving the poor and vulnerable by welcoming Project 10/20 to partner with it to provide shelter to the most defenseless population in Johnson County during the depths of the cold and snowy Kansas winter as there is a lack of available homeless shelters in Johnson County.

Prior to doing so, representatives of Shawnee Mission Church met with the City Planner, City Code Inspector, City Fire Marshall, City Fire Department and the City Police Department, all of whom reviewed the proposal of the Church to partner with Project 10/20 on a temporary basis to shelter the homeless at the Church from December 1, 2019 through April 1, 2020, After the meeting, City officials told the Church’s representatives that they believed the proposed ministry of housing the homeless was permitted under the zoning code. The following week, however, the Church received a letter from the Planning and Developmental Services Administrator rejecting the needed shelter and closing the homeless ministry of the Church. Upon further inquiry with the City, the City Manager told the Church that she, alone, made the decision to deny the Church the ability to fulfill its religious mission to house the homeless this winter. The cruelty of the decision is based on the City of Lenexa’s deliberate exclusion of homeless shelters in all zoning districts within its jurisdiction.

In addition to filing this lawsuit, we filed a motion with the Court asking for an immediate Temporary Restraining Order, or in the alternative, Preliminary Injunction seeking an immediate Order allowing the Church to fully exercise its religious mission  to house the homeless on its Property, on a temporary basis from December 1, 2019 through April 1, 2020, pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000cc.

We will keep you posted about future events on this case when they occur. If your religious organization is facing discrimination from your local City, contact Dan Dalton at Dalton & Tomich PLC to see how we can guide you to a resolution through federal court litigation.

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Dalton & Tomich, PLC is the national leader in successfully helping churches, other religious institutions and their insurers defend their rights in land use and zoning matters under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. We have helped clients win cases against municipalities and other local government bodies from coast to coast, with experience serving both as general counsel and special litigation counsel.