Sunday, October 16, 2011

Fighting to Save the Homeless in More Ways Than One

In a press release last Thursday, the ACLU and American United announced that they are dropping a lawsuit that was filed in July 2008 which challenged a proposed D.C. official arrangement with the Central Union Mission, a religious-sponsored shelter. According to this agreement, D.C. officials intended to give the Mission, Gales School, valued at $8.93 million based on tax records, and $7 million in cash that had been “set aside for renovations,” in exchange for the institution’s previous property, valued at $4 million. The ACLU states that the plan would have given the Mission $12 million in public support to aid the homeless; however, those sheltered and who utilized the Mission’s services were required to attend evening Christian religious services. Moreover, the Mission hires only people who identify themselves as Christians.

Though this agreement would clearly violate the establishment clause, the lawsuit was dropped after Central Union Mission and D.C. dropped the transaction. Instead, Central Union Mission won a bid to lease the Gales School and use it as a homeless shelter for “$1 per year, for 40 years, with an option to extend the lease by 25 more years.” The Mission would also be required to use the property “primarily as a homeless shelter” and not be given money to maintain and refurbish the building. Moreover, the Mission is not permitted to use the Gales School for voluntary religious activities. This new agreement between D.C. and the Mission appears to remove the State from the “three main evils against which the Establishment Clause was intended to afford protection: [which are] ‘sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign religious activity,” according to Lemon vs. Kurtzman (1971). Nevertheless, does this new agreement inhibit religion and the Mission’s free exercise of the members’ shared religious beliefs? Given that both contributing groups willingly changed their agreement, there is no constitutional violation of the Mission’s free exercise. Yet, the lawsuit did not address the fact that the religious organization does not hire people who are not Christians, a blatant violation of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CRSA) which prohibits private employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion, among other factors.

Given that the Mission is receiving benefits from the federal government by leasing a valuable piece of property, notably located only a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, for a mere dollar a year, the State must infringe on the religious liberties of the organization to ensure equal employment opportunities for all citizens regardless of their religious affiliations. As noted in the majority rule in United States v. Lee (1982) which stated that “not all burdens on religion are unconstitutional…[and that] the state may justify a limitation on religious liberty by showing that it is essential to accomplish an overriding governmental interest,” civil liberties can be upheld despite faith based initiatives. However, as observed through a quick perusal of the Mission’s website, the institution seems to exhibit sincere religious beliefs. As a religious organization, employees are expected to “agree and ascribe to our [the Mission] statement of faith at all times.” Provided the Mission’s purpose is “to glorify God through proclaiming and teaching the Gospel, leading people to Christ, developing disciples, and serving the needs of hurting people throughout the Washington Metropolitan area,” is it constitutional to infringe on the organization’s free exercise to determine its employees? Using Bob Jones University v. United States (1983) as a case study, the Mission receives benefits from the federal government which should depend on “meeting certain common law standards of charity” must “not be contrary to established public policy” and exist in “harmony with the public interest.” This precedent should overturn religious institutions abilities to discriminate against people of different religions. Significantly, due to West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), affirmation of beliefs and attitudes of one’s mind are protected by the Constitution. Therefore, this case and Bob Jones University v. United States if used as a precedent would protect people who have different beliefs, though they may not be explicitly religious, such as sexual orientation, to be protected by the national government.


Harry R. said...

I agree with Kathryn that the benefits being conferred upon the mission by leasing the building for one dollar per year provide the government with additional control over their actions. The mission accordingly must not discriminate and must enforce no mandatory religious services. Additionally, the government interest in promoting civil liberties mandates that the mission not discriminate in whom it hires in conjunction with this property. As with Bob Jones University v. US, the mission is publicly supported and must therefore abide by public charitable standards and support the public interest in civil rights.

Christopher J. said...

I have to agree that when an organization takes such overt benefits from the government they fall under more restrictions than a purely private counterpart. The organization agreed to the deal to receive government support, and must now adhere to the government's policies regarding the hiring of employees.