by Jorge Gomez • 5 min. read
Last week, First Liberty Institute requested a religious accommodation for OurCalling, a nonprofit, faith-based ministry based in Dallas, Texas that serves the homeless.
OurCalling provides Bible studies, worship services, mentorship, and many other essential services to provide exit strategies off the street. During times of emergency, such as freezing weather, OurCalling keeps its doors open 24 hours as a last resort if homeless individuals have nowhere else to go.
In 2018, the City ticketed OurCalling for staying open. A recent zoning law created a permitting program that allows entities to serve as temporary shelters in inclement weather, but a buffer zone excludes OurCalling and any other entity within a half mile of the Dallas Central Business District. Our attorneys submitted a letter under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act asking city officials to reconsider their interpretation of the city’s zoning code, which does not actually prohibit churches like OurCalling from operating 24 hours. The letter also asked city officials to reconsider the buffer zone.
What’s the result of the current zoning regulations?
OurCalling operates with the continued threat of receiving a ticket under an ordinance that could prevent it from fulfilling its mission of reaching the most vulnerable in the community. We are asking the City to do the right thing and remove this threat.
The good news is that this isn’t the first time the City and Our Calling have worked alongside each other. OurCalling often partners with the City’s Office of Homeless Solutions, and during the recent February 2021 snowstorm that affected millions of Texans, OurCalling staffed the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center to provide shelter to over 1000 people.
First Liberty hopes that by taking proactive legal action, Dallas officials will see an opportunity once again to collaborate with OurCalling and to foster an ongoing partnership to serve the most vulnerable when they find themselves in desperate need of emergency help.
A Proven Record: Helping Faith-Based Ministries Be a Light to Those in Need
Our recent intervention on behalf of OurCalling is by no means the first time that First Liberty has successfully secured the right of houses of worship and faith-based ministries to be a light in times of distress.
Recall the incredible relief effort mounted by religious groups just a few years ago when Hurricane Harvey pummeled parts of Texas and Louisiana for days with record-breaking flooding. On its heels came Hurricane Irma, devastating areas of Florida with severe winds and more flooding.
In the aftermath of these disasters, local churches and houses of worship opened their doors to collectively provide shelter for thousands of affected people who were left homeless overnight.
First Liberty stepped in almost immediately to ensure the federal government wouldn’t withhold disaster relief funds from churches and religious organizations who needed it to continue their community rebuilding and assistance efforts. It was a tremendous victory for religious freedom—and of course for thousands of displaced Americans—when the federal government responded positively and changed its policies to provide aid for faith-based groups.
Right now, only a short drive away from where OurCalling operates its ministry, First Liberty is defending Pastor Jarvis Baker and his congregation, Canaan Baptist Church (CBC), against attempts to seize their property through eminent domain.
The City of Duncanville wants to acquire the church’s property to build “a fire station, public safety facility and/or other related improvements.” What’s most confusing about the city’s petition is that there are other properties available to the city that would not require them to take the church’s land.
Not only is this a violation of the state’s Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but it also undermines the church’s ministry to the local community, as CBC uses its property to serve the community in the South Dallas and Duncanville area.
Similar to OurCalling, CBC actively lives out its faith by tending to the needs of “the least of these.” For over fifty (50) years, CBC has served its community in a variety of ways, through clothing giveaways, care for the homeless, voter registration drives and countless others. Those they serve include many low-income, underserved and disenfranchised community members.
The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic that shook our nation this past year showed us that houses of worship and religious nonprofits play a unique—really, an essential—role in the flourishing of our country. Indeed, the health crisis made it clear that all Americans can benefit when state and church work together, especially if the two are able to cooperate in times of emergency…when religious groups most urgently need the freedom to serve consistently with their faith.