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Court decision protects religious groups’ ministries, attorney says
Attorney Luke Goodrich
Attorney Luke Goodrich

.- The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco unanimously rejected a lawsuit filed by two people who sued the Boise Rescue Mission for insisting they take part in religious services.

The Intermountain Fair Housing Council and two individuals who stayed at the mission’s shelters sued, saying the organization coerced residents into taking part in Christian-based services by giving preferential treatment to those who participated.

The appellate court said the individuals, Janene Cowles and Richard Chinn, did not have a protected right to take part in the mission’s programs.

“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.

Goodrich argued the case for the mission before the court.

The lawsuit concerned two of the mission’s ministries: a homeless shelter for men and a Christian discipleship program for women recovering from substance abuse. 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 drug treatment program places strong restrictions on participants’ activities and requires all participants to be or to desire to be Christian.

Cowles began staying at the Boise Rescue Mission drug treatment program in 2006 after a judge recommended she enter the program or face a year in the county jail. Before she was admitted, she sent a letter to the mission indicating she was aware of the religious nature of the program and stating that she wanted to change her life “through God and spiritual growth,” the ruling noted.

She said she was required to sign choir hymns, pray silently and out loud and allow the laying on of hands. She said she was also regularly required to “cast out demons” in the facility with oil and holy water, the Associated Press reports.

She said she became upset by the practices and left the room crying three times.

According to Cowles, when she asked if she could graduate from the drug treatment program without converting to Christianity, staffers told her that graduation without conversion had never happened. She charged that the mission barred her from certain activities and placed requirements on her phone call with her lawyer after she asked to be transferred into a non-religious treatment facility.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development rejected a previous complaint from Cowles. The agency said the Fair Housing Act’s religious exemptions protected the mission. It also found that she 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.

Because of the letter, the agency did not believe Cowles’ allegations that she faced retaliation, the Associated Press reports.

Chinn 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 was offended by the religious services offered at the shelters because he frequently heard staffers refer to his faith as a “cult.” He also said that guests who didn’t attend religious services had to wait until service attendees got their food. He charged that the food served to non-attendees was often of inferior quality.

The Becket Fund said that participation in the mission’s ministries is “completely voluntary” and free of charge. The mission receives no government funding. The religious freedom group noted that the Intermountain Fair Housing Council received over $874,000 in federal funding from 2008 to 2010.

“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.


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