Nashville, Tenn., church fights efforts to remove homeless camp from its yard

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Tents are set up at a homeless camp at the Green Street Church of Christ, which is fighting efforts to have them removed. (Photo by Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean)

Green Street Church of Christ has been on a mission to help Nashville’s homeless for years, but now the church says that mission is under fire.

In late June, the Metro Nashville Codes Department cited the church for having tents on the property where the homeless sleep, saying the property’s zoning does not allow camping.

The church vows to challenge the citation in court.

“It is the position of the church that they’re protected under federal statute and under the Constitution of the United States,” said William “Tripp” Hunt, the attorney representing the church.

Church leaders say they are following a biblical directive, in the 25th chapter of the book of Matthew, to help house the poor.

“In that chapter, it says that if you help the poor you are helping Jesus himself,” Hunt said. “Under that basis alone they feel that it is their obligation to help the poor.

“Where it stands now, the city’s prosecuting them for having the homeless encampment there.”

The homeless have been sleeping on the property at 146 Green St. since March 2011 without any complaints, but after the tents went up in March 2012 the city intervened.

The case is expected to be heard in Davidson County’s environmental court in early November, but Tom Cross, associate director of the Metro Law Department, said the city is trying to “work through the issues’’ before the hearing.

“We are trying to understand what our responsibilities are, potentially, to accommodate this use,” he said. “This is more complicated than our typical case. I don’t see this as a constitutional issue, but we would like to see if we can figure out a way that the church’s mission can be fulfilled, but also, at the same time, that public health and safety concerns are protected also.”

Larry L. Crain, a lawyer with the Church Law Institute in Brentwood, said that courts have to balance between upholding zoning laws and protecting religious freedom. The institute advises churches on zoning and religious freedom issues, but it is not involved in this case.

If a church wants to open a permanent shelter, he said, then it would need to get zoning approval.

Crain said Metro should be able to work out an accommodation on a temporary basis if the church can show it has a religious duty to help the homeless.

“There needs to be some flexibility here,” he said.

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