Usually, when Christians complain that the government is infringing on their religious liberty, they’re trying to do something awful like deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples or turn city council meetings into mandatory prayer sessions.
But Wesley United Methodist Church’s dramatic, politically motivated display of religious fervor is different. In response to a lack of resources for the homeless in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Rev. Forrest Clark has turned the church’s courtyard into a campground for the homeless.
When neighbors complained about the church’s “Grace Space,” which houses a dozen people on its busiest nights, the city sent a building inspector, who slapped the church with a zoning violation. According to the City of La Crosse, local laws prohibit Wesley United Methodist from operating a campsite unless they pay fees for a license and permits.
Angry church members and sympathetic residents see a different side of the story.
They say police have tried to relocate the homeless people to makeshift, dangerous camps on city parking ramps, an accusation the city denies. They also note that the campsite had operated for over a year — with minimal fuss — before the city cracked down. La Crosse has few resources for homeless residents, and surrounding smaller towns have none at all. The church’s defenders see the city’s response as an attempt to shove the homeless problem under the rug instead of allowing Wesley United Methodist to help solve it:
The main issue is visibility, Clark said. “My personal opinion is I think the city is trying to make homeless people invisible, so the police are moving them from parks.
“But they are not trespassing. They are our guests,” said Clark, who plans to seek advice from the Wisconsin Methodist Conference and possibly confer with an attorney.
The church requires its “guests” to clean up and leave by 8:00a and to behave respectfully towards neighboring residents and businesses. Most of La Crosse’s homeless have jobs and are in search of permanent housing. But the sight of them in a church courtyard makes a statement that many people aren’t comfortable with — not because they’re opposed to displays of religious conviction, but because it challenges them.
La Crosse Tribune columnist Richard Kyte points out that the city fought hard to keep a Ten Commandments monument in a local public park, and if they fought for that, then why not this?
When the Freedom from Religion Foundation complained about the Ten Commandments monument in Cameron Park, the city got an attorney to respond. Then they found a creative way to keep the monument in the city.
The city was willing to defend a symbol, but apparently is not willing to defend what that symbol stands for.
It is easy enough to see the reason for that. Hunks of stone don’t talk back, they don’t sleep on park benches, or obstruct doorways, or ask for handouts. When a hunk of stone is put somewhere, it stays put. It doesn’t cause problems.
Opponents of the campground claim that it jeopardizes the safety of the people staying there as well as the church’s neighbors, but there aren’t exactly a lot of alternatives for the people being helped. The conflict also raises broader ethical questions: If the church was breaking the law in another way, I suspect atheists would immediately take the city’s side, and from one distasteful angle, the “Grace Space” is no different: it’s unsightly, polarizing, and (more importantly) illegal.
So what do we do here? Enforce the separation of church and state at all costs or support a church that’s fighting to make the world a better place?
I also wonder how I’d react if the church at the end of my block suddenly turned its parking lot into a camping facility for the homeless. I’d like to think I’d be out distributing meals and clean socks to the people staying there.
Ultimately, this conflict isn’t really about religious liberty to me. Wesleyan United Methodist has little in common with churches who use religion as an excuse for reprehensible behavior. Instead, this church wants to prioritize kindness over the letter of the law, and unfortunately, invoking the First Amendment is likely to get them farther than appealing to the city’s sense of compassion.
(Image via Shutterstock)