The question of government funding for faith-based social-service providers has become increasingly controversial over the past two decades as more public funds have become available.
Officials with the Northwest Washington shelter, one of the city’s biggest, said Thursday that after the suit was filed, they stopped requiring men at the shelter to attend services. But the attorneys who filed the suit said some patrons told them otherwise.
“Until a lease was signed, we didn’t know for sure what would happen,” said Alex Luchenitser, who handled the case for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, along with the American Civil Liberties Union. The plaintiffs included two homeless men and two priests, one Catholic and one Episcopal.
City officials were not available Thursday, but mission director David Treadwell said the lawsuit prompted a change of thinking and policy years ago.
“We did a self-examination and decided we are compelled by our faith to serve the poor, but we never want to compel faith on the part of the poor to receive our services,” he said, adding that “very few” people choose not to attend services.
The case began when D.C. officials proposed a controversial property swap that would have relocated the mission to the Gales School, near Georgetown Law School on Massachusetts Avenue NW, and netted the shelter about $12 million, according to the lawsuit.
But the deal fell apart, Treadwell said. The city then sought bids on a lease to rebuild the decrepit school as a shelter, and the mission was selected as the winning bidder. It will lease the school for $1 per year for 40 years and is scheduled to move there in 2013.
The details of the lease deal weren’t released until a few weeks ago.
Robert Tuttle, an expert on church-state property issues at George Washington University law school, said that in recent years, courts have eased restrictions on government funding for faith-based activities. In the 1970s, he said, courts were reluctant to approve anything that might appear to be government subsidizing of religion. Today, he said, the question often revolves around whether the government is directly providing a religious experience and what constitutes coercion.