Two homeless shelter residents sued the Boise Rescue Mission for insisting they take part in religious services under the claim of alleged religious discrimination. However, the San Francisco U.S. Court of Appeals sided with the Christian housing ministry in court by rejecting the case.
Janene Cowles and Richard Chinn, who were staying at the Intermountain Fair Housing Council, alleged that the organization coerced residents into taking part in faith-based services and gave special treatment to whose who obliged.
“Our Constitution and civil rights laws protect the right of religious groups to minister to the poor and needy in accordance with their religious beliefs,” said Luke Goodrich, deputy national litigation director at the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The San Francisco appeals court rejected the case saying that Cowles and Chinn did not have a protected right to take part in the mission’s programs.
According to the Becket Fund, the suit alleged that the ministries engaged in unlawful religious discrimination by encouraging attendance at chapel services at the homeless shelter and by requiring members of the discipleship program to participate in religious activities.
The lawsuit concerned two of the missions’ ministries - a homeless shelter for men and a Christian discipleship program for women recovering from substance abuse.
Suit claims stated that the restrictions for the drug treatment program are too strong, as the program requires all members to be or desire to be Christian.
When Cowles began her stay at the Boise Rescue Mission drug treatment program in 2006, she sent a letter to the mission indicating she was aware of the religious nature of the program and stated that she wanted to change her life “through God and spiritual growth” after a judge recommended she enter the program or face a year in the county jail.
According to the Catholic News Agency, Cowles became upset by program practices such as singing choir hymns and praying and left the room crying on three separate occasions.
In Chinn’s case, he periodically stayed at the mission group’s shelters for men, whose entrance forms state that guests are encouraged but not required to take part in the religious services.
Chinn, a Mormon, said he frequently heard staffers refer to his faith as a “cult.”
He also took offense to the fact that religious services had to wait until service attendees got their food. In his opinion, there was an inferiority mindset when it came to food service.
The mission does not receive funding from the government. The Becket Fund said that participating in the mission’s ministries is “completely voluntary” and free of charge.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development rejected a previous complaint from Cowles. According to the DHUD, Cowles had written to the state court after leaving the mission saying there were no hard feelings with the organization and that its staffers meant a lot to her. That letter barred a high influence on the court's decision to reject the lawsuit.
“Especially in these economic times, it makes no sense for federal taxpayers to subsidize baseless lawsuits against religious ministries who are trying to help the poor. The resources required to defend lawsuits ought to go towards food and shelter for the homeless,” Goodrich said.