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Progressives embrace religious liberty for their own causes

An illegal homeless encampment on a sidewalk in Honolulu. Photo courtesy of St. Elizabeth's Episcopal Church in Honolulu

(RNS) Religious liberty has often been a thorn in the side of progressives, especially when it’s used by conservatives to defend everything from Christians-only clubs on campus to merchants who won’t serve gays.

But progressives are now leveraging the First Amendment principle as a vehicle to advance causes of their own. As they see it, social action is integral to living out their faith, and local ordinances can’t take away their rights.

In the name of religious freedom, activists are defying local resistance to their campaigns for social change. They’re pressing ahead, for instance, with plans to install solar panels over a local board’s objections in Massachusetts and to establish tent cities for the homeless in California and Michigan.

Their inspiration comes in part from the state of Washington, where 15 Seattle-area congregations have hosted tent cities on grounds that they’re following a religious imperative.

“There are civic organizations that would like to host, but it’s more complicated for them because the law specifically protects the right of religious organizations,” said Polly Trout, founder of Patacara Community Services, a nonprofit provider of services for Seattle tent cities. Even if a church owns no land, it can rent property for as little as $1 and host a tent city as a protected religious use, which Trout encourages faith communities to do.

In Massachusetts’ Middlesex Superior Court, a test case is unfolding. In June, the First Parish in Bedford, a Unitarian Universalist church, sued the Bedford Historic District Commission for allegedly violating its religious rights when the board denied a permit application to install solar panels atop the 1817 meetinghouse.

“The HDC erred when it refused to consider First Parish’s religious beliefs and the constitutional and statutory protections for the free exercise of religion,” the 25-page lawsuit says. The claim quotes a 2006 Unitarian Universalist Association statement urging the faithful to “instigate sustainable alternatives” to practices that fuel climate change.

And to serve the homeless, progressives are increasingly hanging their hopes on religious liberty.

Homelessness is growing in 16 states, according to the 2016 State of Homelessness in America. Where tent cities have sprung up, activists have pushed to follow Seattle’s model by making them official with designated terms and basic infrastructure, including defined perimeters, security and sanitation.

Such efforts have met stiff opposition from city councils and neighbors, who have cited safety and health concerns. But rather than give up, proponents are invoking their religious rights.

In Sacramento, a coalition of activists has set up tent cities six times since 2009 — each established despite a city ordinance that bans camping for more than one night in any one location. No tent city has survived city efforts to disband them.

But now the coalition is teaming up with the Interfaith Council of Greater Sacramento, which has agreed to sponsor a tent city if a landowner will offer a parcel for that purpose. Involving ICGS would make the project a religious use, the activists believe, and protect it under the First Amendment.

“With all the other tent cities that we set up with civil disobedience, there was no religious entity as an umbrella,” said Sister Libby Fernandez, director of Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, a religious nonprofit that provides services for 600 homeless people a day.

Volunteers help serve food at Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, which serves 600 homeless people a day. Photos courtesy of Sacramento Loaves & Fishes

Volunteers help serve food at Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, which serves 600 homeless people a day. Photo courtesy of Sacramento Loaves & Fishes

“That’s why we really want to shift, and that’s our next goal if we can find a parcel,” said Fernandez, a member of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy. “The owner, along with some of the neighbors, would work with Interfaith to say: ‘This is a religious right to take care of our homeless people.’”

Progressive activists say the invocation of religious liberty is no panacea, nor is it a license to disregard the objections of neighbors affected by their projects. Addressing opponents’ concerns remains essential for any cause to succeed, according to Fernandez.

But confidence in religious rights has helped keep initiatives alive despite entrenched opposition. Activists recall, for example, what happened in the 1990s when the city of Sacramento took steps to shut down Loaves & Fishes’ then-unpermitted weekend soup kitchen. The organization responded by changing its charter from secular to religious nonprofit. Immediately the city backed off, Fernandez said, thus allowing the weekend outreach to keep growing as a free exercise of religion.

In Ann Arbor, Mich., the secular nonprofit Mission A2 group has tried for four years to establish a small tent city or tiny-house community for homeless people, who currently camp illicitly in woods where they have no behavioral codes, sanitation or other facilities. Neighbors and city councilors have consistently opposed it.

Now the group owns a remote 3.5-acre parcel near Interstate 94 and is pursuing a City Council variance to circumvent the municipal camping ban. But if the council again says no, the group would be willing to lease or sell the land to a religious group that might have more latitude, according to Executive Director Lynn McLaughlin.

“If a faith community came to us and said, ‘You sell us that property and we’ll utilize the First Amendment right to put a tent community there,’ that would be fine,” McLaughlin said.

“We’re not so hung up on owning the property. We’d like the end result.”

About the author

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is an award-winning reporter and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.


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  • As if tent cities are the answer. I don’t decry them as an emergency measure, but can’t we come up with better long term solutions to the issue of homelessness? Homelessness today, it seems to me is a measure of two things, both deplorable. Personal irresponsibility on the part of those who have allowed drugs, primarily, to impair their ability to function in an ordered society. Secondly, human greed, which places personal and unreasonable profit above legitimate and reasonable profit in the matter of real estate. In the aftermath of World War II when there was a decided shortage of available housing for returning veterans and their families, people like Bill Levitt of Levittown fame built decent modest affordable housing with two bedrooms and a bath. Few builders today are interested in providing basic housing. Of course, increasing government regulations and fees are contributing to the price squeeze which affects building prices, but mostly it seems people who can, desire to live lavishly rather than modestly, and builders build to that end. The disparity between the wealthy and the rest is at as great divide as has existed since the onset of the Great Depression, it is untenable and will result in great human cost.

  • again, you have it down. But thanks to nearly a century of “greed is good” and “over-population is good”, these are the results.

  • We may mean well when we take a flying leap at explaining the lives of other people, but we need to admit — that’s all we’re doing. “Personal irresponsibility on the part of those who have allowed drugs to impair their ability to function.” Right, but how about we pull that apart a bit. How many are vets suffering ptsd, other trauma victims who are self-medicating, people suffering other mental health issues who find relief in substances and whose issues then cascade. Half of all women and children who are homeless are victims of domestic violence. So let’s look at the other choices these people had — was a college degree and a job with a supportive family among them? And yes, we now have the exacerbated problem of housing that isn’t affordable, health care that can bankrupt someone (note: homelessness is rising most keenly for the aging) and the fact that homelessness includes the working poor. Rarely does a homeless person have just one reason for their situation.But a safe home can provide a basic stability that allows someone to address everything else.

  • Excellent points gapaul!

    The difference between this kind of religious liberty and the Kim Davis type is that this is doing something For people. The other is about trying to Deny something from people. BTW, there are lots of conservative Christians who work to alleviate homelessness, but not discriminate against LBTG folks.

  • You make some very valid points. The homelessness of women and children who are victims of domestic violence speaks to the irresponsibility of men who are called to be responsible husbands and fathers, yet that still begs your question regarding veteran PTSD, self medicating trauma victims, and the mentally ill. In mine own experience, many men and women alike are merely selfish irresponsible human beings, consumed with their own pleasures without regard for their responsibilities to others. As I also am aging, with health issues of some consideration and not far from those classified economically as the working poor, the whole question is of some material significance to me. Absolutely a safe and secure home will ameliorate a host of other issues.

  • Still so many of us trying to explain people without knowing them. Who are these irresponsible, violent men? They aren’t all men in a separate category from men who are victims of PTSD, their own trauma and abuse, and their own lack of experience of healthy family dynamics. Until you know someone’s full story, you really don’t know. So simple to call people selfish or irresponsible without pausing to wonder why. Which is the first question you’d ask if you wanted to help them change.

  • Well, as someone who has struggled with my own failures as a husband and a father, without having fallen into the trap of violence and abandonment of my family, perhaps the only way to frame a response is the rather tired dictum that if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, flies like a duck, it’s probably a duck. In 57 years of life I’ve seen any number of instances where people have taken the selfish road without a sufficiently traumatic past to justify their actions. Life is not generally lived in a vacuum apart from sensible common observance. As to solutions: The best recommendation I can make to those who wish to change their behavior or circumstances which are unhealthy to them and those they hold dear, is to find the nearest Gospel Mission where the precepts of Jesus are preached clearly and faithfully, where people who are hurting can have their immediate physical and nutritional needs met in a non-judgmental atmosphere of warmth and compassion. Usually in such an environment people do learn the lessons of personal accountability, which is a firm footing to start from. I’ve seen, read, and heard the testimony of those who have frankly admitted not only their traumatic past, but their initially destructive response to it, and further the benefit and blessing that came under the auspices of the Mission construct which started them back towards a productive and healthy life. It doesn’t always happen, but it happens with a high enough rate of success to recommend it to anyone.