Under pressure, D.C. shelter ends church-service requirement

October 13, 2011

WASHINGTON (RNS) Prompted by civil liberties groups, a
taxpayer-supported homeless shelter in the nation's capital will no
longer require its clients to attend religious services.

"We're pleased that the D.C. government will no longer be supporting
such religious coercion," said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the
Washington, D.C., branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU filed suit after officials struck a $12 million deal to
support programs at Central Union Mission, which at that time required
the homeless to attend Christian services as a condition of getting food
and shelter.

The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State
sued on behalf of several D.C. taxpayers, clergy and homeless men.

The deal was abandoned and now the mission will instead lease a
school building from the district for $1 a year.

The lease prohibits Central Union Mission from requiring any
individual seeking its services to "participate in religious services or
religious studies as a condition to receiving any service."

Because of these changes, the ACLU and AU dropped the lawsuit
Thursday (Oct. 13).

Daniel Mach, the ACLU's program director for religious freedom, said
the new agreement is "much better," but "the long-term lease continues
to present constitutional concerns."

Alex J. Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for AU, warned that
the mission must not provide "favorable treatment" to homeless persons
who volunteer for religious programming.

"If the mission does so," he said, "we could end up back in court in
short order."