October 2018 Church & State | People & Events

Cities cannot punish homeless people for sleeping outside when their only other option is a religious shelter that they might not want to go to, a federal appeals court has ruled.

 The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city of Boise, Idaho, could not enforce an ordinance that banned homeless people from sleeping in public spaces on nights when there was space available in shelters.

The court noted that even though the shelters had space, some of them turned people away if they arrived late and others required participation in religious activities.

“A city cannot, via the threat of prosecution, coerce an individual to attend religion-based treatment programs,” Judge Marsha S. Berzon wrote for the court.

The court held that the city’s policy of arresting people who did not want to go to shelters violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” reported the Los Angeles Times.

“The 8th Amendment prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter,” Berzon wrote.

She added, “[A]s long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”

The New York Times reported that Boise, Idaho’s capital city, with a population of about 220,000, has a growing population of homeless people. The city has three shelters, but two of them require residents to undergo what Berzon called an “intensive, Christ-based residential recovery program” as a condition of staying.

One of the plaintiffs in the case said he did not want to take part in the religious program. He was subsequently cited for sleeping outside. (Martin v. City of Boise)

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