Church allowed to operate a temporary homeless shelter as part of its rightful property use; resolution prompts update to city code
Detroit, Mich.—January 9, 2020—The recent settlement between the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church and the City of Lenexa, Kansas, is a classic example of the intent of RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000), according to Daniel P. Dalton, a religious property attorney who represents religious institutions throughout the country and is a co-founder of Detroit-based Dalton + Tomich. The speaker, legal writer and author of Litigating Religious Land Use Cases, who represented Shawnee Mission Church with local Kansas legal counsel Shook Hardy & Bacon, said this resolution addresses the right for churches to exercise their religious missions—including ones that involve hosting the homeless—on their properties.
“In this case, the Shawnee Mission Church did everything right,” Dalton said. “Church representatives met with the Lenexa City Planner, City Code Inspector, City Fire Marshal and City Fire Department, all of whom reviewed the proposal of the Church to partner with Project 10/20 on a temporary basis to shelter homeless individuals at the Church. Officials subsequently responded that they believed the proposed ministry was permitted under the zoning code.”
According to Dalton, two events triggered Shawnee Mission Church to file a lawsuit:
1.) A letter from the Planning and Developmental Services Administrator rejecting the needed shelter and closing the homeless ministry of the Church.
2.) Upon follow-up to the letter, the Church discovering that the City Manager alone made this decision based on the City of Lenexa’s deliberate exclusion of homeless shelters in all zoning districts within its jurisdiction.
Shawnee Mission filed its lawsuit in the United States District Court of Kansas City, Kansas, on November 22, 2019. The Church also filed a Motion for an immediate Temporary Restraining Order or, in the alternative, Preliminary Injunction allowing it 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 RLUIPA, the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, the United States Constitution, and the Kansas Constitution.
“Shawnee Mission Church’s calling is to provide a welcoming refuge for those experiencing homelessness, and the City of Lenexa responded unlawfully by obstructing that mission through zoning,” Dalton said. “However, RLUIPA’s General Rule of no government imposing or implementing a land use regulation in a manner that inflicts substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, made the city realize they needed to come up with an agreement to address overnight homeless ministries—both straightaway and in the future – and that’s what they did.”
Following a settlement with the city, the lawsuit was dismissed and Shawnee Mission Church will be able to operate its homeless ministry. Dalton outlined the key points of the agreement:
- The Church is allowed to use its building for overnight homeless ministry December 13 through April 1 this year and the next three years
- The City will work with the Church to craft an ordinance within the next three years to permit homeless ministries in Lenexa
- The City will allow 30 single adults to stay overnight in the Church’s building (a former elementary school that once housed 1,000 students)
- The Church will have a social worker from Project 10/20 on site to help the homeless residents
- The Church will be allowed to feed the residents with meals brought in for dinner and breakfast
- The Ministry will be open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
- The City will pay a portion of attorney fees and cost expended by the Church to pursue this case
- The Church will provide training to its volunteers for Fire Watch, health and safety
- The Church volunteers will be awake during the evenings while the residents sleep
- The Church will follow the policies and procedures of Project 10/20 with respect to intake, security and safety
“We are grateful to the Court for encouraging this settlement and look forward to partnering with the City of Lenexa to craft a mutually agreeable ordinance to address overnight homeless ministries in the future,” Dalton said. “In this case, RLUIPA gave us the power to defend and preserve this church’s right to serve the poor and vulnerable—an integral part of its mission.”
About Dalton + Tomich
Detroit-based Dalton + Tomich PLC is comprised of land use, denominational trust law, and business law attorneys. Serving as a partner to religious organizations, Dalton + Tomich is a national leader in religious property law land use, notably with cases related to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and denominational splits. Learn more about our services for businesses and religious organizations on our website.