Lenexa, Kansas, you really are violating the First Amendment right to religious freedom by denying Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church the right to operate a temporary homeless shelter for 40 people during the winter months.
You seem to be telling church members that they can pray about and talk about their most deeply held beliefs. They can think about them, sing about them and express them through interpretive dance. But they mustn’t actually do anything about them.
The church, in the building that used to house Bonjour Elementary School, is across a fence, some railroad tracks and a road from a gas station. It’s near a Community Center for seniors and Holy Trinity Catholic Church.
You’d think that, as an attorney for the church, Daniel Dalton, said, “this area of town, it’s just perfect for this particular use … There’s a demonstrated need in Johnson County because there are no shelters available. So it’s just a perfect fit.”
But need, schmeed. Under city code, there’s no place for a shelter in all of Lenexa, where Dalton says zoning is in fact intended “to keep a homeless shelter out.”
The church has partnered with the nonprofit Project 1020 to try and remedy that by opening what would be the only shelter in Johnson County. But now that their application to do this has been turned down, they’re suing the city, arguing that people will freeze in the cold as a result, when they don’t have to.
Other churches in other locales have won lawsuits like this. Last year, a federal judge said St. Paul, Minnesota, could not keep the First Lutheran Church there from operating a homeless shelter under the First Amendment.
But Johnson County is going to have to be forced to acknowledge that religious freedom means more than allowing orthodox Christian bakers to refuse to create an edible work of art for a same-sex wedding.
Christ told his followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner. Jews are called to repair the world, and Islam teaches that believers “give food, out of love for Allah, to the poor, the orphan and the slave.”
The Unitarian Universalist Church, which comes out of a liberal Christian tradition, holds this: “We seek to act as a moral force in the world and believe that ethical living is the supreme witness of religion.”
The senior minister at the church, the Rev. Rose Schwab, is a Buddhist nun who, according to the church website, “believes church to be a place of authenticity, healing, justice, and transformation.” And in America, words about the witness of faith are supposed to mean something.
Asking any religion not to act on the central tenets of its faith is not constitutional, and that is what Lenexa is asking the Unitarian Universalists to do. There are not even any other group’s countervailing rights to consider here, because who doesn’t think we ought to act as a moral force in the world?