Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship Pastor Steve Ramer went over his allotted time for public comment in a fiery speech to city council Tuesday, January 16, 2018. Nick Coltrain/Coloradoan
The Fort Collins city attorney’s warning to other staff regarding an Old Town church’s plan to install lockers for homeless people to use has drawn scrutiny from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Fort Collins City Attorney Carrie Daggett issued the emailed warning on May 31, when the city postponed a hearing regarding the proposed lockers that was originally scheduled to happen later the same day.
“Please be sure to coordinate with us regarding any further dialogue with the public or with (church pastor) Steve Ramer about this,” Daggett wrote to other city staff. “Because the approach being taken is not quite the same as our usual process, and because the special discussions amongst staff could be used as a basis for arguing that we are treating the Church less favorably than other applicants based on the Church’s religious practices (ministering to the homeless), we need to take special care in how we communicate about it.”
Beyond its intended recipients, the message had an apparently mistaken recipient, however: Ramer, pastor of the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship that has proposed making the lockers available, was left on the recipient list.
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He has spent the year fighting to open 24/7-accessible lockers for people experiencing homelessness at his church near the Old Town Library. And now he has involved the American Civil Liberties Union.
Federal law specifically prohibits treating religious organizations differently than non-religious organizations, the ACLU wrote in a June 29 response to the city. It responded to Dagget’s letter simply: “We agree with your assessment.”
“The City admits that it has placed the Church’s application on a special and more difficult track relative to that reserved for secular uses,” the ACLU memo states. “But equal means equal. The Mennonite Fellowship has now endured a months-long, politicized process that in secular cases takes only several weeks to resolve.”
In addition to arguing the city is potentially violating Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the ACLU accuses the city of potentially violating the First Amendment via religious discrimination and the equal protections clause of the 14th Amendment.
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The ACLU asked the city to stop the extra scrutiny of the proposal, return the church’s application fee and approve the lockers. The ACLU asked for a response by July 9 and warned of litigation if its requests weren’t met.
In her response, Daggett argued the email was intended to make sure the city was compliant with appropriate rules as an unprecedented and controversial proposal was analyzed. The delay was due to the unique nature of the request, she wrote: The initial request gave city staff only two weeks to study it fully.
“The assertion that my email admitted ‘that the City recognized that its special treatment of the Church was likely unlawful’ is superficially plausible, but actually wrong when considering the intent of the email and the full context of the City’s interactions with this particular project,” Daggett wrote.
Because of impacts to nearby residences and businesses, via increased foot traffic, noise and disturbances, Daggett wrote that the city determined a planning and zoning board review would be more appropriate so affected neighbors could share their thoughts. She noted that the public process could be avoided if the church moved the lockers inside. In that case, it wouldn’t even need an internal review from the city, she wrote.
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“While engaging in this public process may be an inconvenience to the Church, it does not rise to a substantial burden,” she wrote, citing the legal standard for what constitutes religious discrimination.
The city declined to comment beyond Daggett’s response.
City staff initially recommended that the planning and zoning board approve 20 metal lockers for the exterior of the church, provided the church improve lighting, install a security camera and have a contact person available 24/7 to address any issues that may arise. The church agreed and even planned a cookout for the day after it expected an affirmation of the program.
That hearing with the planning and zoning board was instead rescheduled for June, and later rescheduled again for this Thursday. City staff cited ongoing safety concerns in the…
Authored by Janine Maureen