The Supreme Court of Washington ruled Thursday that churches do have the right to host the homeless in tent cities. According to the Seattle Times, the court ruled “that the City of Woodinville violated a church’s constitutional rights when officials refused to consider a permit to host a Tent City homeless camp on its grounds three years ago.”
The state’s high court unanimously found that the state constitution’s First Amendment right to religious freedom should have trumped a city moratorium on “conditional use” permits, which a King County Superior Court judge had used to evict the roving camp from the Northshore United Church of Christ.
And two justices took it a step further, saying that the way they see it, the city has no right to even require a permit at all.
Tent City 4, the tent city in question, is run by SHARE/WHEEL. As they note in their website, SHARE/WHEEL tent cities have a strict code of conduct, have a food preparation area, port-a-potties and trash removal. They provide shelter because there’s not enough indoor facilities, and they also have flexible hours which help for swing shift and graveyard workers, and couples can stay together.
Tent cities move from church to church, with Tent City 4 mostly operating on the Eastside of King County. Here’s a YouTube clip on Tent City 4 from two years ago.
Some more interesting facts about Tent City 4, from the Northshore Church of Christ website:
Do people leave Tent City 4?
- The typical length of stay for residents is about 6 weeks.
- The Eastside Tent City has found this area to be rich in day-labor and other jobs which lead to permanent employment. In fact, several residents of the 2004 Tent City stay in Woodinville now work and live in Woodinville—such as at McLendon’s and Woodinville Lumber.
- Other residents, after living a more settled, safe lifestyle surrounded by community volunteers coming and going 24/7, repair relationships with families and move home.
- One other unique event at Tent City is that while working to keep their own community together, many residents develop friendships with others living in Tent City: After saving money in the free shelter while working, they pool their savings in groups of 2 or 4 people to rent housing together.
According to the Times article, the City of Woodinville refused a permit application from SHARE/WHEEL for Tent City 4, citing a moratorium.
The court said that their previous rulings on such matters are clear: the government can’t impose undue burdens on the practice of religious beliefs. “Rather than seeking to impose reasonable conditions on the Church’s project to protect the safety and peace of the neighborhood, the City categorically prevented the Church from exercising what the City concedes was a religious practice,” Justice James Johnson wrote for the majority.
In a concurring opinion, justices Richard Sanders and Tom Chambers said the majority should have been more emphatic. The state constitution gives an “absolute” freedom of religion, so governments can’t be “in the business of prior licensing or permitting of religious exercise any more than it can license journalists,” Sanders wrote.
“Absolute means absolute.”
In fact, Sanders wrote, the church should be able to sue the city for legal fees because its rights were violated.
This is a victory, not only for Tent City 4 and the Northshore United Church of Christ; but all tent cities and churches in the state.
I’ve never quite understood the paranoia some people have about the homeless, and particularly tent cities, which tend to be well organized with rules and sometimes screening. Especially in this economy – with jobs shrinking and paying less, housing prices high, and lack of adequate medical coverage – any of us could become homeless. Some of us, like me, are only a paycheck or two away. All it can take though, is a string of bad luck.
Yes, some end up on the street because of mental illness or PTSD, or alcohol or drugs (neither of which are allowed at tent cities). Which begs the question of why we as a society don’t adequately take care of these people.
Then again,there’s the question of why there is a need for tent cities at all. Why is there homelessness while Seattle and the surrounding area are still building mega-condos now going un-sold now that the economy has hit the skids? Which is the problem – accelerating rents and home (and apartment, oops, sorry, “condos”) prices, often fueled by people living beyond their means. I’ve asked it before – where are the rest of us supposed to live? Actually I probably have good reason to keep my eye on Tent City 4 and Nickelsville. . . Hate to say it, but you may, too.