VICTORY: Waynesboro City Council Votes 4-0 for Zoning Code Change to Allow Churches to Provide Temporary Shelters for the Homeless
In response to efforts by The Rutherford Institute, Waynesboro City officials have reversed their previous course of restricting churches wishing to provide temporary shelters for the homeless. At its July 23 meeting, the Waynesboro City Council voted 4-0 to adopt an amendment to the Zoning Code that would recognize rotating homeless shelters as by-right, accessory uses of church buildings. This amendment will eliminate the rigorous permitting process, and in some cases outright restriction, for churches that wish to take part in a rotating thermal shelter ministry. Institute attorneys had challenged the City’s prior interpretation of its zoning ordinance as violating the First Amendment, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and Virginia’s Act for Religious Freedom.
“I am pleased to see officials in Waynesboro recognize that it is both illegal and unwise for local government to interfere with churches that simply want to fulfill their biblical mandates to care for the needy and downtrodden,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “With government budgets currently stressed beyond capacity, any organization, church or otherwise, that wants to provide shelter for the homeless in their community should be welcomed with open arms.”
Pastor Howard Miller of the Waynesboro Mennonite Church contacted The Rutherford Institute in December 2011 on behalf of the Waynesboro Area Refuge Ministry (WARM), a group of churches that want to institute a rotating thermal shelter for the homeless so that those in need of winter shelter can take refuge inside existing church buildings. The Institute was alerted to the fact that WARM’s efforts were being hindered by the Waynesboro Zoning Board, which was erroneously interpreting its ordinances to require churches to apply for conditional use permits to provide temporary shelter to the homeless during the winter, and was even excluding some churches from applying for permits at all. Under Waynesboro’s city code, a church must apply for a permit if it wishes to perform some activity that would be considered a primary use, if the church has not already been permitted to do that activity. However, as Rutherford Institute attorneys pointed out, the city’s zoning ordinances do not prohibit mission work of the type Pastor Miller and his colleagues wish to undertake. In fact, as constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead noted in a December 2011 letter to the City of Waynesboro, sheltering the homeless—particularly during the cold winter months—is an important historical function of Christian churches. Moreover, because this mission work to protect families and individuals from the elements is purely a function of religious exercise by devout individuals and groups in Waynesboro, any restriction on that work should be examined in light of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, and other federal and state laws that protect religious organizations. Staff attorney Rita Dunaway also addressed the Planning Commission during a public hearing on the matter, providing the City with specific case law and warning that the City could open itself to costly litigation unless the Commission either changed its interpretation or amended the ordinance to remove the permit requirement. In voting unanimously to adopt the Zoning Code amendment, the Waynesboro City Council went against the recommendations of the Planning Commission, which had rejected the amendment earlier in the year.