This case poses an important issue as to the breadth of religious freedom when confronted with the zoning authority of local government.*fn1 The Hoboken municipal authorities seek to close a shelter for homeless people operated by plaintiff, St. John's Church. Plaintiffs seek an injunction against the closing, asserting their constitutional right to religious freedom. The primary issue, not previously determined in this State, is whether a municipality may through its zoning laws constitutionally prohibit a church from operating a shelter for the homeless on its premises. My ruling is that the municipality may not.
The facts are essentially not in dispute. Last winter the members of the Hoboken Clergy Coalition "determined that the plight of the homeless was one of the most pressing needs in our city." (Affidavit of Rev. Felske para. 2-4). The Coalition therefore began operating a shelter in the basement of St. John's Church supported by donations from member churches. Ibid. The shelter feeds 30 to 50 persons an evening meal and provides sleeping accommodations for them. The next morning the people are given breakfast and "returned to the streets." Ibid.
Under the Hoboken zoning ordinance a church is a permitted use in the zone in which St. John's is located. Hoboken Zoning Ordinance § 4.5205. Permitted as accessory uses are "other uses customarily incident to principal uses and on the same lot." Hoboken Zoning Ordinance § 4.5203. The church contends that a shelter for the homeless is an accessory use to a church.
Rev. Felske states in his affidavit submitted on behalf of plaintiffs:
The concept of sanctuary has been a strong element of religious tradition from Moses to the New Testament. [ Id. at para. 7.]
Sheltering the homeless and caring for the poor has consistently been a church function, carried out for centuries by religious persons. It is among one of the basic mandates in the Judeo-Christian heritage. [ Id. at para. 7.]
Throughout history the churches have carried out [the] biblical mandate to aid the poor and the helpless. Sanctuary became such a strong religious tradition it was recognized in Roman, medieval, and English common law. During the middle ages every church was a potential sanctuary. [ Id. at para. 12.]
The American colonies, particularly those with strong religious leadership and affiliation, e.g. Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Maryland were seen as refuges from the political and religious persecutions of seventeenth century Europe. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, churches and religious persons became stations along the Underground Railroad providing food and shelter for escaping slaves. [ Id. at para. 13.]
More recently churches and synagogues throughout this country have opened their doors to the homeless and oppressed. Although precise statistics are not available on the number of homeless shelters, these include hundreds from coast to coast. Over 50 churches and synagogues in New York City sheltered the homeless this past winter. Congregations in San Francisco, Atlanta, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Hartford, Jersey City and Chicago opened their doors to the poor. [ Id. at para. 14.]
The Hoboken Clergy and their churches are fulfilling their religious obligations and exercising a traditional religious function in utilizing the basement of St. John's to shelter the homeless poor. [ Id. at para. 15.]
The facts set forth by Rev. Felske strongly support the plaintiff's position that using the church as a sanctuary for the poor is a religious use ...