The Right to Occupy–Making a Difference

The Rutherford Institute has come to the defense of several churches whose efforts to provide temporary thermal shelters for the homeless have allegedly been hindered by the Waynesboro Zoning Board. The Institute was asked to intervene in the matter after being alerted to the fact that the Zoning Board is erroneously interpreting its ordinances to require churches to apply for conditional use permits to provide temporary shelter to the homeless this winter, and is even excluding some churches from applying for permits at all. Institute attorneys have warned city officials that their actions are unconstitutional, in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“Churches have a biblical mandate to care for the needy and downtrodden, and should be supported—not hindered—in their efforts to do so,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “With government budgets currently stressed beyond capacity, it is difficult to comprehend any logical reason that would justify the City of Waynesboro’s imposition of barriers for churches wishing to provide shelter for the homeless in their community.”

Pastor Howard Miller of the Waynesboro Mennonite Church and a collection of other Waynesboro area churches are working toward instituting a rotating thermal shelter for the homeless, called the Waynesboro Area Refuge Ministry, so that those in need of shelter this winter may take refuge inside existing church buildings. However, it appears that the City of Waynesboro’s Zoning Board has been erroneously interpreting its ordinances in such a way as to require churches to apply for conditional use permits to establish the temporary shelters, and has even excluded some churches from applying for permits at all.

Under Waynesboro’s city code, a church must apply for a permit if it wishes to perform some activity that would be considered a primary use, if the church has not already been permitted to do that activity. However, as Rutherford Institute attorneys point out, the city’s zoning ordinances do not prohibit mission work of the type Pastor Miller and his colleagues wish to undertake. In fact, as constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead notes, sheltering the homeless—particularly during the cold winter months—is an important historical function of Christian churches. Moreover, because this mission work to protect families and individuals from the elements is purely a function of religious exercise by devout individuals and groups in Waynesboro, any restriction on that work should be examined in light of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, and other federal and state laws that protect religious organizations.

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