Key point: Churches may not have a constitutionally protected right to operate homeless shelters on their premises.
A federal appeals court ruled that a county did not violate a church's constitutional right to religious freedom by denying it a zoning variance to operate a homeless shelter on its premises.
A local Assemblies of God church in Naples, Florida, became concerned with the problem of homelessness in its community. Homeless people were living in vacant lots under unsanitary conditions. In response to this community crisis, the church converted a building on its premises into a shelter for the homeless.
The shelter created considerable distress among some residents of the community who were concerned about health and safety problems associated with the shelter. A zoning board later ordered the church to close the shelter on the ground that it was not a permitted use of the church's property under the county zoning ordinance and the church had not been granted a variance. The church sued the county arguing that closing the shelter would violate its first amendment right to freely exercise its religion. Specifically, the church argued that sheltering the homeless is an essential aspect of the Christian faith.
A federal district court rejected the church's argument, and the church appealed. A federal appeals court agreed that no constitutional rights had been violated by the county's action. The court relied almost entirely on a 1993 decision of the United States Supreme Court in which the Court struck down a municipal ordinance that prohibited ritualistic animal sacrifices by the Santeria religion.
The Supreme Court observed: "In addressing the constitutional protection for free exercise of religion, our cases establish the general proposition that a law that is neutral and of general applicability need not be justified by a compelling governmental interest even if the law has the incidental effect of burdening a particular religious practice." Church of the Lukumi Babaluaye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 113 S. Ct. 2217 (1993).
The federal appeals court concluded that the county zoning law that prohibited the operation of homeless shelters without a variance was a "neutral law of general applicability," and accordingly it was valid even if it burdened the church's exercise of its religion. The court concluded: "The burden on First Assembly to either conform its shelter to the zoning laws, or to move the shelter to an appropriately zoned area, is less than the burden on the county were it to be forced to allow the zoning violation. Thus … First Assembly's right to free exercise of religion is not violate by the county' zoning ordinances."
What this means for churches
The court did not refer to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was enacted six months before its ruling. The Act requires that any governmental infringement upon the free exercise of religion must be justified by a "compelling governmental interest." This is a very difficult standard to meet, and it is questionable whether the county could have done so in this case. First Assembly of God v. Collier County, 20 F.3d 419 (11th Cir. 1994).