Church Sues Lenexa For Denying Its Request To Operate A Homeless Shelter

Nov 26, 2019
Originally published on November 26, 2019 5:10 am

A Lenexa church is suing the city for denying its request to use its building as a temporary homeless shelter.

Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church says the denial infringes on its exercise of religion, violating the Constitution, state law and federal law.  

The church, at 9400 Pflumm Road, occupies a former elementary school building adjoining commercial and office properties, although the building is zoned residential single family.

The church recently partnered with Project 1020, a nonprofit that provides temporary housing to homeless people, to provide overnight shelter for up to 40 homeless individuals per night from December through March.

Although the city’s fire marshal approved the plan, Lenexa City Manager Beccy Yocham denied the church’s request, saying it did not conform with the city’s zoning code.   

Lenexa has no zoning for homeless shelters. Johnson County itself has just one homeless shelter, with four beds for single adult women.

Last winter, Project 1020 served 240 homeless individuals in Johnson County, according to the church’s lawsuit.

Under the homeless policy adopted by the church, adult individuals would arrive at the church at 7 p.m. for dinner, sleep on cots in the building’s former classrooms and depart the premises every day at 7 a.m. Church members and Project 1020 volunteers would provide them with support services while they were on the premises.

City officials initially had no problem with the plan. But on Oct. 24, the city advised the church that the proposed shelter was “inconsistent” with a residentially zoned area.

At a second meeting on Nov. 5, Yocham told church members that it was within her discretion to deny their request, according to the lawsuit. A week earlier, she was quoted in Flatland, KCPT’s digital magazine, as saying, “I absolutely know there is a need. But we have to think whether it is appropriate, and we don’t think it is here.”

Yocham was not available for comment. A spokeswoman for the city said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church is represented in the lawsuit by Shook Hardy & Bacon and the Detroit firm of Dalton & Tomich, which specializes in religious land use law.

Daniel Dalton, one of Dalton & Tomich’s partners, said the city’s action constituted a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of the church “and there’s no compelling governmental reason why this denial occurred.”

“There are other things the city could have done other than an outright denial,” Dalton said. “It wasn’t the least restrictive means.”

Among other things, the church alleges the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, which was enacted by Congress in 2000. The law prohibits zoning laws that “substantially burden” the religious exercise of churches.

Courts have generally sided with churches that seek to use their buildings to house homeless people. Most recently, after First Lutheran Church sued the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, a federal judge granted the church’s request to block the city’s imposition of strict conditions on its application to operate a homeless shelter in its basement.

Earlier this year, St. Paul reached a settlement with the church and the operator of the homeless shelter, The Listening House, agreeing to “establish a better process for land-use applications for religious organizations.”

Similarly, a federal appeals court in 2016 found that a California church’s religious exercise was substantially burdened by the city of San Buenaventura’s denial of its request to continue its homeless ministry in the church.

Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church was established in 1967 and has more than 300 members, according to its lawsuit. The church is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which promotes the inherent dignity of every person.

The church says charity and service are integral parts of its mission, and in the lawsuit it cites biblical passages that decree providing for the needy.

The church “perceives its physical location to be a gift that has allowed the congregation to accomplish their sacred mission to create their beloved community; that is, to build a company of people to act as Jesus would; to serve and shelter the people who are homeless,” the lawsuit states.

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

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