City delays decision on new homeless regulations

New regulations that would allow churches to serve as temporary shelters for homeless families faced criticism Tuesday as being unconstitutional.

City commissioners at their weekly meeting agreed to delay final passage of the much-debated homeless regulations after a local church said the new rules placed unconstitutional limitation on how it could practice its faith.

“The new code language dramatically restricts the religious liberty and the free exercise thereof of all churches in Lawrence,” Caleb Stegall, an attorney with Lawrence’s Grace Evangelical Presbyterian Church, wrote in a letter to commissioners.

The new regulations, which commissioners gave preliminary approval to earlier this month, allow churches to operate as overnight homeless shelters for homeless families with children as long as they don’t do so for more than 15 days per quarter.

Stegall argues in his letter that the regulations are too strict. Churches should be allowed to serve as shelters more than 15 days per quarter, and they should be allowed to serve homeless individuals who are not part of a family as well.

The new regulations also limit a church’s ability to serve as a homeless day center, if the church is located in a residentially zoned neighborhood.

“The language places a substantial burden on all religious institutions and their ability to minister to other persons according to the dictates of their conscience and the calling of their particular religious beliefs and convictions,” wrote Stegall.

City commissioners on Tuesday stopped short of saying they agreed with Stegall’s analysis, but said they wanted the city’s legal staff to take another look at the regulations.

“We don’t want to put something on the books that creates unintended consequences,” City Commissioner Rob Chestnut said.

Depending on how long the city review takes, though, it could stall efforts to start a new homeless services program in the city. The new regulations were created primarily to allow the Family Promise organization to operate in the city. The Family Promise program uses a series of churches and volunteers to provide temporary shelter for homeless families.

Joe Reitz, an organizer of the Lawrence Family Promise program, said he wants to have the program operational by Thanksgiving. He said he’s still optimistic that he’ll be able to meet that timeline.

But if the city review recommends any significant changes to the regulations, it could take several months to process. Neighborhood groups likely would balk at any changes that loosened the restrictions on how often a church could serve as a homeless shelter, and where homeless day centers could be located.

Toni Wheeler, the city’s director of legal services, will lead the review. City Manager David Corliss told commissioners Tuesday that he was recusing himself from the issue because he is a member of Grace Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Corliss made clear he wasn’t taking the church’s side in the issue, but felt it would be best that he not participate in the review.

Wheeler said she hoped to complete the review in short order, but could not give a specific timeline.

Stegall, who wasn’t able to be reached for comment Tuesday evening, wrote that the church is ready to “fully and firmly assert all of its legal prerogatives” in court.