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Lenexa church sues city over refusal to allow homeless shelter

Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church
Posted at 12:59 PM, Nov 26, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-26 14:25:57-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Lenexa church sued the city over its refusal to allow the church to operate a homeless shelter, saying the city “imposed a substantial burden” on the church’s religious beliefs.

According to the suit, filed last week in the U.S. District Court in Kansas, the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church proposed operating a temporary homeless shelter out of its building at 9400 Pflumm Rd.

The church recently partnered with Project 1020, a nonprofit that provides temporary housing to the homeless, to house up to 40 homeless people from December through April. Under the proposal, the adult homeless individuals would stay at the church between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., where they would be provided with meals, clothing, hygiene kits and related services, according to the lawsuit.

The church, which moved into a former elementary school building in 2011, sits adjacent to property zoned for commercial and office uses, but the building itself is zoned as residential.

Church leadership and Project 1020 representatives met with Lenexa city officials in October to discuss the proposed temporary homeless shelter. According to the lawsuit, an official from the city’s Community Development and City Building Code Division said the property met all of the city building code requirements.

But later that month, the church said it received a letter from Magi Tilton, the city’s planning and development administrator, saying the proposal would not be approved because the use was “inconsistent” with the area’s zoning.

Church representatives met again with the city in early November, where City Manager Beccy Yocham said “it was within her direction to deny the church the proposed accessory use as a ‘homeless shelter,’” according to the lawsuit.

The city said it would not comment on the pending litigation, according to a spokeswoman.

In the lawsuit, the church argues that the city’s refusal to allow the church to operate the homeless shelter creates “a substantial burden to its sincerely held religious beliefs” and its commitment to serve the homeless.

“As a result of the city of Lenexa’s denial of (the church’s) request, the church is effectively barred from using its property for its religious ministry and has substantially burdened the religious exercise of the church,” the lawsuit says.

The church also says there is only one existing homeless shelter in Johnson County for homeless women and no shelters available for homeless men, despite a 13% increase in homelessness in the county over the past year, according to the suit.