November 11, 2008
Mayor Greg Nickels
600 Fourth Avenue
P.O. Box 94749
Seattle, Washington 98124-4749
RE: Homeless Encampment on University Christian Church Parking Lot
Dear Mayor Nickels:
The Seattle Community Council Federation, a coalition of community groups throughout Seattle, urges you to allow the homeless encampment at NE 50th Street and 15th Avenue NE in the parking lot of the University Christian Church to continue as long at the Church is able to accommodate the tenants and to waive permitting fees. In light of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 USC ¶ 2000 cc (“RLUIPA”), we urge you to defer taking action on the ground to evict the homeless encampment at NE 50th Street and 15th Avenue NE on the parking lot of University Christian Church until the City has secured a declaratory judgment authorizing it.
In hosting the encampment, the University Christian Church is carrying out an undertaking of its members pursuant to its religious faith. The New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew 25:31-46 charges Christians with the duty to give food to the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to take in the homeless stranger, to clothe the naked, and to visit those in prison. Matthew 7:12 also sets for the Golden Rule. An extended list of citations to chapters and verses of the New Testament and the Old Testament on this theme could fill this page and then some. It is very expensive for the University Christian Church to host the encampment and the City should be appreciative of the commitment of the Church to take on this responsibility.
RLUIPA sets high standards for government actions to meet before impinging on the exercise of religious liberty. To invoke its protections, the Church would first have to show that forbidding the encampment imposes a “substantial burden” on the exercise of its religion. Cases say that schools, day care centers, youth camps, and even parking lots for parishioners “exercise” right to worship are permitted. 42 USC ¶ 2000 cc-5(7). Surely, caring for the “lease of these” in society in their need does so too, and closing the encampment before its time burdens the church’s charitable deed during the approaching holiday season when Christians are especially called upon to remember and to carry out the Golden Rule.
If the court finds that the City’s restrictions of homeless encampments to a single site citywide is a “substantial burden” to the church’s religious mission, RLUIPA requires the City to prove that its restriction furthers a “compelling governmental interest” and is the least restrictive means of achieving that end. 42 USC ¶ 2000 cc(a)(1). That’s a tall order when the church owners of the sites welcome the homeless and the encampment meets health standards. The City would have to show a very compelling reason for restricting supervised homeless encampments to just one site citywide. Administrative convenience will not suffice. Should the City proceed, a lawsuit arise and the City lose, it will have to pay damages, attorneys’ fees and costs to the church and the homeless displaced from the encampment.
Perhaps the City’s rule of only one encampment at a time citywide reflects a settlement made with sponsors of such an encampment several years ago? While such an agreement would bind those who are party to it, it would not affect a church or campers who were not signatories.
This encampment is an exercise of religion—religious liberty is an unalienable First Amendment Right. Prudence therefore calls upon government officials to use caution and restraint and to act strictly in accordance with the law.
Thank you for considering the views of the Seattle Community Council Federation.
Jeannie Hale, President
3425 West Laurelhurst Drive NE
Seattle, Washington 98105
206-525-5135 / fax 206-525-9631
cc: Janetta Cravens Boyd, University Christian Church, Michael Ramos, Director, Church Council of Greater Seattle