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Palm Coast Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019 2 weeks ago

US Dept. of Justice investigating Bunnell, tells city to keep Sheltering Tree open in the meantime

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Was there a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act?
by: Brian McMillan Executive Editor

Updated 2:21 p.m. Nov. 1

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the city of Bunnell's denial of a special exception application to operate a cold weather shelter at First United Methodist Church, in a single-family residential zoning district, in Bunnell.

"We are overjoyed that the city of Bunnell has made this decision. We hope to continue to develop a working relationship with city staff and officers as we begin to address the issues of poverty and homeless in our community with compassion, caring and vision."

Terry Wines, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Bunnell

The DOJ will be investigating whether Bunnell violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which "prohibits application of a land use regulation that: (1) imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise absent a compelling justification pursued in the least restrictive means; (2) treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions; (3) discriminates against religious entities on the basis of religion or religious denomination; and/or ( 4) totally excludes or unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction," the DOJ's letter states.

Bunnell City Attorney Wade Vose replied to the Department of Justice on Oct. 29 to address the RLUIPA concern:

"The First United Methodist Church of Bunnell does not in fact operate the cold weather shelter on the church's property," Vose wrote. "Rather, the cold weather shelter has been operated by a secular nonprofit corporation called Flagler County Family Assistance Center Inc. doing business as The Shelter Tree."

Still, Vose said, the city will provide all documents requested by the DOJ and will cooperate with the investigation.

The DOJ requested that the city allow the operation of the cold weather shelter at the location this cold weather season on those nights when the temperature reaches 40 degrees or below, until the conclusion of the investigation.

To comply with the directive, the city administration will not engage in enforcement action with respect to the operation of the cold weather shelter on such nights until further direction is provided by the Bunnell City Commission. A special meeting has been called for Nov. 4.

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