Following a merger with another congregation, the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Middletown, New York, was scheduled to remain empty and unused this winter. The clergy felt this wasn’t in keeping with the church’s mission of helping those in need, so they collaborated with the Emergency Housing Group and other charitable organizations to open a “warming station” for the city’s homeless in a room inside the vacant property. “This is what churches do,” the Rev. Jack Lohr, pastor of the new United Presbyterian Church, told the Hudson Valley Times Herald-Record.
The city’s corporation counsel was not pleased. The church is located in the business district, where zoning rules passed in 2007 ban charitable institutions, adult care, and residential uses. Fire inspectors were sent to the church to look for violations, but they came up empty-handed, so the city may be forced into a more direct confrontation.
There is a precedent the church can use. In 2004 a federal court held that New York City’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church could allow homeless people to sleep on its steps when the homeless shelter it ran was full. Federal law demands that a municipality prove a “compelling government interest” before it can start issuing demands about the way a religious institution uses its property.