Ripeness Spoils Church’s Efforts

In the matter of Shenkel living church ministries Coventry Township, 2009 WL 3806769, Shenkel United Church of Christ (“the Church”), has recently found its efforts to fight homelessness spoiled by the doctrine of ripeness.

In order to fulfill its Biblical mandate to care for the needy among us, the Church, for several years, participated in a Montgomery County run program called “One Night at a Time”. “One Night at a Time” helped homeless persons find shelter for one (1) month during the winter. For a reason unrelated to the case discussed herein, in 2005 Montgomery County discontinued the “One Night at a Time” program. Instead, Montgomery County directed its homeless population to a local state hospital. Unfortunately, it became apparent that the local state hospital was inadequate to meet the needs of the County’s efforts against homelessness, as overcrowding became a persistent problem.

In 2007, in response to the continued homelessness problems in Montgomery County, and the overcrowding of the state hospital, a Christian organization, called Ministries for Main Street, was formed to help combat homelessness. The services offered by Ministries for Main Street were, in essence, the same as those offered by the “One Night at a Time” program. As the Church was an active participant with the “One Night at a Time” program, it attempted to similarly participate in Ministries for Main Street.

Before participating in Ministries for Main Street, the Church dutifully notified North Coventry Township (hereinafter “the Township”) of its intention to do so toward the end of 2007. Although the Township had no objection to the Church’s participation in “One Night at a Time” two (2) years previous, the Township now, suddenly, objected to the Church’s participation in Ministries for Main Street, even though the Church was to provide the same services as before. The Township’s objection primarily revolved around its allegation that the Church’s efforts with Ministries for Main Street would violate both the Township’s zoning laws and building codes. Specifically, the Church was zoned for assembly purposes, and not as a residence as required to house the homeless even temporarily.

Additionally, the Township’s Fire Marshall sent a letter to the Church informing it that, considering the Church’s present zoning, it could not contain sleeping facilities pursuant to the applicable fire safety requirements. As a result of the clear resistance of the Township, the Church elected not to participate in the Ministries for Main Street program. The Township subsequently indicated to the Church that if the Church was interested in participating in the Ministries for Main Street program, it would need to apply for a variance from the zoning and/or building and/or fire codes.

Instead of requesting a variance, in October 2008 the Church elected to file an application with the Township’s Zoning Hearing Board, requesting a determination that it did not need a variance to participate in the Ministries for Main Street program. After a number of postponements, and unsuccessful negotiations with the Township, the Church withdrew its aforesaid application. Instead, the Church elected to pursue its goals through litigation and brought suit against the Township alleging the Township had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act, and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

In reaching its decision, the Court never addressed the substantive allegations made by the Church. Instead, the Court refocused the matter onto whether the matter is, ultimately, a land use issue. Consequently, the Court focused on whether the Church’s claims against the Township were ripe in the context of a land use matter. When enunciating the standard for ripeness, the Court cited to Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172 (1985) and Murphy v. New Milford Zoing Commission, 402 F.3d 342 (2nd Cir. 2005). In order to determine whether a matter is ripe when a land use issues arises from constitutional claims, such as the matter discussed herein, “the government entity charged with implementing the regulations [must reach] a final decision regarding the application of the regulations to the property at issue.” See Williamson.

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