Court Rejects Christian Housing Ministry Lawsuit

Two Idaho homeless shelter residents failed in their attempt to sue a Christian mission shelter for allegedly forcing them to participate in religious activities.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco collectively discarded their lawsuit, according to the Catholic News Agency.

Represented by the Intermountain Fair Housing Council, Janene Cowles and Richard Chinn argued that residents at Boise Rescue Mission Ministries, a faith based housing outreach organization, were pushed to participate in faith-based activities at the shelter.

They also alleged that authorities at Intermountain gave special treatment to who obliged.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represented the Christian ministry in the case. The appeals court said the individuals did not have a protected right to take part in the mission’s programs.

Luke Goodrich, deputy national litigation director for the Michigan based Beckett Fund, argued the mission’s case.

 “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 Goodrich the Catholic News Agency wrote.

According to the Becket Fund, the suit alleged that the ministries engaged in unlawful religious discrimination by encouraging attendance of chapel services at the homeless shelter and required 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.

Since the drug treatment program required all members to be or desire to be Christian, the suit claimed that the restrictions were too steep.

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. Cowles stated that she wanted to change her life “through God and spiritual growth” after a judge recommend 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. Cowles left the room crying on three separate occasions during her stay, because of the religious content of the programs.

In Chinn’s case, he periodically stayed at the mission group’s shelters for men, whose entrance forms stated 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 claimed there was an inferiority mindset when it came to food service at Boise.

The shelter had a stipulation that if you did not attend religious services; you had to wait until service attendees got their food in order to get yours – a rule Chinn felt offended by.

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.

“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 told the Catholic News Agency.

According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, 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. This letter along with the Fair Housing Act’s religious exemptions protected the mission and aided the courts decision to reject the case.

The Beckett Fund noted that the Intermountain Fair Housing Council received over $874,000 in federal funding from 2008 to 2010. Since 1958, the Boise Rescue Mission Ministries provides food, clothing and shelter for men, women and children.