Sep 15, 2011

Central Union Mission operates an overnight shelter for homeless men in Washington, D.C.  As part of its program, the Mission proselytizes its homeless clients; homeless men may spend the night at the shelter and stay for lunch on Sundays only if they attend Christian church services--which are generally fundamentalist and evangelical--at the Mission’s chapel.

In 2007, the Mission began negotiating with the District of Columbia to acquire a building, the Gales School, owned by the District. In July 2008, the D.C. Council voted to provide the Mission with the Gales School (valued at nearly $9 million) as well as $7 million in cash, in exchange for Mission-owned properties worth less than $4 million. The Mission thus received a total benefit of approximately $12 million.

On September 2008, Americans United, joined by the ACLU, challenged the proposed transaction in federal court. We alleged that the proposed transaction would violate the Establishment Clause and D.C. law by providing a financial benefit to a religious organization for the purpose of advancing a religious mission and imposing religious practices on homeless people seeking shelter at the Mission.

We agreed to dismiss the lawsuit in October 2011, after the Mission and the District finalized a new lease. The new lease provides that although the Mission will be permitted to use the Gales School for voluntary religious activities, the lease prohibits the Mission from “requir[ing] any individual seeking [the Mission’s] services to participate in religious services or religious studies as a condition to receiving any service at the Leased Premises.” 

We retain the right, however, to file a new lawsuit challenging the lease if it is implemented in a manner that is unconstitutional--if, for instance, the Mission favors clients who sign up for religious activities or otherwise pressures clients to practice religion. We will continue to monitor the lease closely.