Group Asks Fenty to Abandon Mission Deal

By Elissa Silverman and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A national religious liberty watchdog group sent a letter to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty yesterday, asking him to abandon plans to sell a valuable District property to the Central Union Mission because the group said the transaction violates federal and local law.

"This deal effectively subsidizes religious worship and instruction, thus violating core constitutional principles," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in an interview last night.

At a meeting last month, the D.C. Council approved an emergency bill requested by Fenty (D) that authorized the sale of a former city-owned homeless shelter known as the Gales School to the mission. Officials characterized the transaction as a land swap, but according to the legislation, the financial exchange is not of equal value.

The mission would receive the Gales School, assessed by the city tax office at almost $9 million, as well as $7 million in cash to renovate the property. The city would get a property on Georgia Avenue assessed by the tax office at $2.68 million. The mission originally planned to move to that location after selling its Logan Circle headquarters, but abandoned that plan after neighbors protested.

"The Establishment Clause of the Constitution's First Amendment prohibits the provision of public aid for religious activity," cites the letter signed by Ayesha N. Khan, the organization's legal director, and Alex J. Luchenitser, its senior litigation counsel.

Central Union Mission asks men who seek shelter to participate in a church service as well as Bible study, but David Treadwell, executive director of the mission, said men can opt out.

"The point they miss is this is a property exchange," Treadwell said. "This is about property, not about the operations of the facility."

Although the sale was approved by a majority of the council, two members questioned whether there might be church-state issues. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said at the time that he was concerned about whether the mission, with its religious affiliations, would discriminate against the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population.

Treadwell assured him it would not.

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who cast the lone vote against the bill, also had reservations because of the mission's religious teachings.

"It was clear that Christian prayer is part of their program," he said. "It depends to what extent Christian prayer is a requirement. . . . If there is a lawsuit, the courts will have to decide."

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who voted for the deal, said he was having difficulty seeing the watchdog group's argument, considering that other religious groups receive city funds.

"The biggest [social services] provider we have is Catholic Charities," he said. "We have a lot of child-care providers that are tied to churches. . . . There are a number of organizations that we deal with that are church-related."

The Fenty administration did not respond to requests for comment.

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