As the Lacey City Council struggled for the better part of two years to adopt a workable ordinance governing tent cities, council members had one eye on the ordinance and the other eye on the state Supreme Court.
Council members were eager to see how the state’s highest court would rule on a case out of Woodinville where the city refused to consider a land-use permit for a homeless encampment. Lacey officials wanted to know if they — like Woodinville — could set strict limits on tent cities in Lacey.
While the state’s nine justices dallied, Lacey officials went ahead and adopted a well- reasoned ordinance and, in fact, are in the midst of hosting the city’s first homeless encampment.
Now the state’s highest court has finally announced its unanimous decision in the long-awaited Woodinville case. All nine justices, in essence, sided with the church and ruled against the city.
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But a close examination of the details shows that the decision, written by Justice James M. Johnson, would have been of little use to Lacey officials because the judges dodged the question of whether federal religious freedoms were violated in the case.
That’s a major disappointment because civil rights advocates and churches were looking for clear guidance on the issue. Justices had a chance to clarify whether cities can limit encampments, but sidestepped the opportunity.
The justices said that Woodinville violated the state’s constitution by using a temporary ban on development to block Northshosre United Church of Christ’s effort to set up a tent city for the homeless. City officials had refused to consider the church’s land-use permit application for Tent City 4 in a largely residential area in 2006. By limiting their ruling to a technical, land-use question, the Supreme Court sidestepped the central issue in the case: whether cities and other government jurisdictions violate the constitution when they try to regulate church decisions.
Chief Justice Gerry Alexander signed the majority opinion along with Justices Charles Johnson, Barbara Madsen, Mary Fairhurst, Debra Stephen and Susan Owens. Justice Richard B. Sanders wrote a concurring opinion, and Justice Tom Chambers agreed, that the majority held an “errant and dangerous assumption that the government may constitutionally be in the business of prior licensing or permitting religious exercise any more than it can license journalists.”
Neither group of justices ruled on whether federal religious freedoms were violated in the case, sparking a disagreement over the effect the decision will have on future tent city cases.
Robert Aloysius Hyde, a lawyer for the church, said the ruling left unclear the question of whether churches must seek permits for homeless encampments.
“The municipalities have to act very carefully,” he said. “There has to be a very careful examination of the permitting process for each church.”
Supporters of the church included the American Civil Liberties Union, a synagogue and six churches or religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, Church Council of Greater Seattle and regional associations of American Baptists, Evangelical Lutherans and United Churches of Christ.
Woodinville City Attorney Greg Alan Rubstello said he was disappointed but believed the decision left room for “reasonable conditions on these types of permits.”
“I’m not sure that it has really changed the rules that much,” Rubstello said.
So other government entities, like the city of Lacey, are left in legal limbo, unsure whether they can set reasonable conditions for homeless encampments within their jurisdiction.
The issue is moot in Lacey, which adopted a revised tent city ordinance this year that allows encampments in church parking lots. A previous version had mandated inside, only camping — a condition church leaders said was totally unworkable and amounted to a ban on tent cities. The requirement that encampments be indoors raised the question whether the city could set such limits on a religious institution — and thus the city’s interest in the Woodinville case.
The revised ordinance was adopted in the spring and immediately Pastor Howard Ullery Jr. and the congregation of Lacey Community Church invited Camp Quixote, South Sound’s homeless encampment, to spend the summer at their church.
The misgivings and misperceptions of neighbors have failed to materialize.
“It’s sort of been a non-event,” said Mayor Graeme Sackrison, who has spent time as a camp host on a couple of occasions.
“It’s been very quiet,” said City Manager Greg Cuoio.
“It’s not been a problem,” said Police Chief Dusti Pierpoint. “We’ve had no police calls.”
While things are working well in Lacey, as they did when various churches in Olympia hosted the encampment, it’s unfortunate that the state Supreme Court missed the opportunity to answer the church/state question whether government jurisdictions can set limits on church-sponsored homeless encampments.