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Perspective: Making homelessness a First Amendment issue

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A recent Associated Press story told the tale of an Ohio church attempting to serve as a shelter for the homeless. Police, it was said, filed eighteen criminal charges alleging zoning and building code violations. The pastor countered with a federal lawsuit.

Many years ago, I was nominally associated with a place of worship in a nearby town. The parishioners there encountered an almost identical problem.

Their offer to the homeless of a place to sleep one night per week during the winter months drew the attention – and menace – of the local zoning officials.

The chair of the lay leadership committee asked me what they and the minister should do.

I thought about it. “It’s a first amendment issue,” I finally smiled.

First amendment?” he asked incredulously. “What do sleepovers have to do with freedom of religion?”

Everything,” I answered. “Tell the zoning people that you’re conducting an all-night prayer vigil. If a few people happen to doze off, well, that’s the way it goes.”

So they did. And the zoning officials relented.

I once would have called that progress. Now I think that the progress we obtained years ago was an illusion. The plight of homeless people everywhere makes it an illusion.

And yet – be it progress or be it illusion -- We must continue to try. We must continue to try.

I’m Scott Summers, and that is my perspective.

Scott Summers is a McHenry County attorney. His blog SummersTimes is at ssummers.substack.com.