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NYCLU Hails Decision By Federal Court Recognizing Right Of Church To Allow Homeless to Sleep On Church Property

Update: January 21, 2002 — Mayor Bloomberg has made it clear that he will continue his predecessor’s policy of trying to prevent the Fifth Ave Presbyterian Church from permitting homeless people to sleep on its steps as part of the church’s religious mission. Earlier this week the City backed away from a tentative settlement agreement.
The NYCLU will continue to represent the church and a number of homeless people as co-counsel in the appeal.

Federal District Court Judge Lawrence McKenna last night ruled that the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan has a First Amendment right to allow the homeless to sleep on the Church’s private property as part of the Church’s religious work to help the homeless. Judge McKenna therefore barred the NYPD from entering the Church’s outdoor stairwells and landings to arrest homeless persons whom the Church long has allowed to sleep there. However, because he found that the Church had not sufficiently closed off an adjoining sidewalk area that it owns to the public, Judge McKenna did rule that the City could disperse the homeless from that sidewalk area.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which represents the Church along with private attorney Jonathan Robert Nelson, hailed the decision by Judge McKenna. “This decision recognizes the important principle that a church has a constitutional right to provide sanctuary to the homeless as part of its religious mission,” said Senior Staff Attorney Christopher Dunn. “We also are pleased that Judge McKenna granted the Church’s request for an order protecting the homeless sleeping on the Church’s stairwells and landings.”

As for the issue of the sidewalk area that is Church property, the court’s decision turns on its conclusion that the Church had not adequately closed the sidewalk area to the public. The Church soon will consider what additional steps it might take to close that property to public use, which would then allow the Church to make the area available to the homeless again. “The Church fully intends to pursue its interest in providing sanctuary to the homeless, and we do not view Judge McKenna’s order as precluding use of the sidewalk area for this, so long as the Church clearly closes off that area to public use,” said Dunn.

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman vowed that the NYCLU would continue its efforts to help the Church and the homeless: “The NYCLU long has supported the right of churches to exercise their religious beliefs free from government interference, and this activity is all the more important when it is designed to the help the most destitute members of our society. We hope that the new Administration recognizes the value of the important work of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.”

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