City-Funded Shelter In Idaho Can’t Push Religion, Says Court

An evangelical Christian group’s operation of a homeless shelter for the Boise, Idaho, city government violates church-state separation, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the city’s lease of Community House to the Boise Rescue Mission (BRM) violated the First Amendment. When the ministry took over the homeless shelter, it instituted religious activities that were supported by Boise tax dollars.

The homeless shelter was operated by the city and a secular non-profit since 1994, but in 2004 the arrangement collapsed over operational disputes, according to court documents. Boise then leased Community House, a furnished 34,000-square-foot building, to the religious group for $1 a year. (The five-year lease also gave the Boise Rescue Mission a 20-month option to buy the property for $2 million. According to the 9th Circuit, that figure was $500,000 less than the minimum value that Boise established for the property.)

The 9th Circuit, in concluding that the city’s lease to the BRM was “publicly financed,” also noted that the local government continued to insure the property and pay for its upkeep. (Community House v. City of Boise)

When BRM took over the homeless shelter, ministry leaders decided to make it a men-only facility and told the women and children that they needed to find another place to stay.       

The religious group also started instituting religious activities for the homeless men. The appeals court noted that the BRM conducted daily 60-minute Christian worship before dinner at the shelter.

Those chapel services consisted of singing, Bible reading, prayer, testimonies and preaching, the court stated. “It thus appears that BRM is giving instruction in, and imbuing those Community House residents in attendance at the chapel service with, the tenets of Christianity,” the 9th Circuit wrote.

Citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the appeals court concluded that city officials had diverted government aid to what amounted to religious indoctrination.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a friend-of-the-court brief that urged the appeals court to rule against government funding of religion.

The Associated Press reported in November that Boise City attorneys would ask the entire 9th Circuit to re-hear and reverse the panel’s decision.