Press Editorial

March 9, 2009

By Staff

Homeless at churches need regulations, too

When Tent City 4 came to Issaquah for three months in the summer/fall of 2007, it was first viewed with skepticism and concern. By the time the camp at Community Baptist Church opened, the city and community were solidly in support. In hindsight, it was a wonderful way for Issaquah to open its heart and roll out the welcome mat to the men and women who had nowhere else to sleep but in their tents under the blue tarps. Now the Legislature has taken steps to introduce a new law that would prohibit cities from interfering with the decisions of any church wishing to house homeless people. The bill has already cleared the House and is being reviewed by a Senate Committee. 

“It is inconsistent with the protection of the free exercise of religion for municipalities to unduly burden the ability of churches to shelter the homeless as part of their religious mission,” says Substitute House Bill 1956.

Whoa! While Issaquah had only a positive experience with full cooperation between the City and church, religion should not supercede the rules and regulations already in place to protect and promote public health and safety.

The bill’s language specifically says a city or county cannot attempt to regulate the housing of homeless people based on proximity to a school or day care. Yet public schools in many cities already have designated “Drug Free” zones around schools. While Tent City came with restrictions about the use of drugs and alcohol, not all homeless people seeking shelter at a church come with those screenings. And it is a well-known fact that many homeless people are in that predicament due to mental health issues, a possible concern near children.

Furthermore, SHB 1956 does nothing to stop a church from welcoming any campers to roll out their blanket and spend the night — without regard for needed toilet and cooking facilities.

Federal laws already protect churches from zoning discrimination, meaning a church can be located just about anywhere it wants. But SHB 1956 extends the right to practice freedom of religion to the church “mission” — without regard for those who might be impacted adjacent to the church’s premises.

While Tent City has been met with puzzling discrimination in many area communities, the dialogue is part of the process as citizens learn more about homelessness. Encouraging communities to join in the mission of a local church is a better way than enacting de facto spot zoning from Olympia.

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