A WARM Primary Use

December 22, 2011

As we find ourselves in the midst of cold winter nights, many churches across the nation are working to provide food and shelter for those who are homeless. However, these efforts to care for "the least of these" sometimes spark interference from local officials. A prime example this year is in Waynesboro, Virginia. Several churches in town spent a year studying homeless in the community and created the Waynesboro Area Refuge Ministry (WARM) to serve as a night shelter during the winter to be hosted at a local church building and staffed by volunteers from churches in town. There currently is not a homeless shelter in Waynesboro. The WARM program is based on similar programs in nearby cities like Charlottesville and Harrisonburg. I have had the opportunity to participate in the Harrisonburg effort, known as the Harrisonburg And Rockingham Thermal Shelter (HARTS), which has been limited in which churches it can use as sites this year because of the expected increase in need. The problem for WARM is that city officials argued that a homeless shelter does not meet the city's zoning ordinances. Church leaders had to delay the opening of the shelter and argue their case before a city council meeting last week. Despite the urgency of helping people right now, the city council will not vote until next week--a full two weeks after hearing arguments from WARM organizers. Even if there are safety concerns about the shelter, it seems logical to recognize that such a situation is safer than keeping people on the streets. During the city council meeting last week, Sharon Smith of Basic United Methodist Church (the church providing the facilities for WARM) argued:

In every entrance to Waynesboro, there is a sign that says, 'Hospitality in the Valley.' ... Is that for everyone, or just those who can pay for it?
It is nice to see city officials being urged to actually live out their PR slogans. Too often today our laws are designed to remove and punish the homeless, who are not treated as full citizens.

The problem in this case is that city officials claim that the primary use of a church building is worship and that while other accessory uses can be permitted (like housing a minister), a homeless shelter does not qualify as an accessory use. As Waynesboro Assistant City Manager Jim Shaw argued:
Transient lodging or shelters for the homeless are not considered accessory.
He is right that a homeless shelter is not an accessory use--that is because it is a primary one! How can churches worship a homeless man on Sunday morning and not open their buildings for the homeless that night? To only use a building for sermons and singing songs is to turn worship into nothing more than the sound of clanging cymbals. After all, faith without works is dead. For city officials to try and decide what is or is not primary church use is to violate the religious rights of the congregations. Although there should be a concern for basic health and safety standards to be followed, to not even allow a church to apply for a permit because the ministry is not deemed "primary" or even "accessory" is problematic. As Waynesboro Mennonite Church Pastor Howard Miller, who serves as WARM Chairman, argued, the city's decision is a "gross overreach by the city zoning officials and limits the outreach of ministries." Fortunately, The Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based organization that nationally works to protect religious and civil liberties, agrees with WARM and is fighting on their behalf. The Rutherford Institute's founder and president John Whitehead wrote a letter to Waynesboro city officials explaining how their policy to prvent WARM from operating violates the First Amendment and state and national laws. Citing laws and scriptures, he argued that WARM is an accessory use since it is clearly related to the mandate of the churches. He wrote:
As you are undoubtedly aware, the proposed temporary use of these church facilities to protect needy families and individuals from the elements is purely a function of religious exercise by devout individuals and groups in Waynesboro. Thus, any actions taken to impede these efforts must be carefully examined under the lens of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which guarantees individuals and churches the right to freely exercise their faith. ... With government budgets currently stressed beyond capacity, it is difficult to comprehend any logical reason--much less the "compelling interest" that will be required under the aforementioned laws--that would justify the City's imposition of barriers for churches wishing to provide this most basic, essential function for the neediest people in your community. In this regard, the City's actions appear to be not only illegal but also unreasonable and utterly lacking in compassion.
Amen! Although I believe WARM should actually be viewed spiritually as a "primary" use, Whitehead makes a solid argument for why city officials must legally recognize it as at least an "accessory" use. Hopefully city officials will do the right thing and allow WARM to quickly start operating. And hopefully churches in other cities will attempt similar efforts. As we celebrate Christmas, let us also make sure that in our communities it is not said that there is no room for those seeking shelter.