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Church Can Shelter Homeless on Steps

Court: Order bars New York from removing people sleeping at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian.

June 14, 2002|From Reuters

NEW YORK — A federal appeals court has ruled that homeless people can seek evening shelter on the steps of a prominent church in a prime Manhattan shopping and tourist area.

The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Wednesday a lower court's temporary order stopping New York City from removing homeless people sleeping on property owned by the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, across the street from the Trump Tower and Tiffany's.

"The church has demonstrated ... that its provision of outdoor sleeping space for the homeless effectuates a sincerely held religious belief and therefore is protected under the Free Exercise clause" of the 1st Amendment, the three-member panel said.

In 1999, the church officially designated two areas, the landings within its arched entryways and its front steps, as evening shelter for the homeless. The church said it considers its outdoor space a sanctuary for homeless people who do not want to sleep in shelters. About 20 to 30 people would spend the night on its steps and perimeter property.

Last year, the city told the church it would no longer allow the homeless to sleep on the property. On three occasions in December, police removed people staying outside the church during the night.

The church sued the city Dec. 17, during the final weeks of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's administration.

It said in court papers that it is "commanded by Scripture to care for the least, the lost and the lonely of this world," and, in ministering to the homeless, the church is "giving the love of God."

A district judge found that the church had shown a likelihood of success on the merits of its claim if the case went to trial, and he issued an order stopping police from removing people staying on the church's steps and landings.

Although the judge said the city could prohibit people from sleeping on sidewalks surrounding the church, he ruled that the church's steps are not covered by city regulations.

The trial judge held that allowing people to sleep on the private property constitutes protected religious activity because doing so enables the church to interact with and help the homeless in bettering their lives.

On appeal, the city argued that it has the power to enforce minimum standards for unregulated shelters and that the church violated local zoning laws.

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