DETROIT— In a letter today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan urged Ferndale city officials not to interfere with the First Baptist Church of Ferndale’s religious mission of serving the poor. The city is currently reconsidering its decision to allow the church to provide social services. The ACLU warned that denying the church permission would violate the Religious Land Use Act.

“The First Baptist Church’s desire to use its facilities for charitable services to the homeless and underprivileged is an extension of its religious mission and its deeply held beliefs,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director. “To interfere with the First Baptist Church’s religious duty, is to deny the church’s fundamental right to freedom of religion.”

In September, the Ferndale Community Development Services office approved a plan to move the South Oakland Shelter social service office to the church’s grounds with the condition that no overnight stays can occur. The SOS agreed and the space was to be used for daytime social services to the homeless population, including job counseling, access to telephones and the Internet and personal hygiene facilities.

Further, the CDS said that the proposed move to the church building appeared to be permitted under the zoning for the church. The city then issued a demolition permit for the educational wing of the church to make way for SOS. However, church neighbors claimed that the move violates current zoning and organized to stop it. In February, city officials bowed to the pressure and announced that the issue will be decided by the Board of Zoning Appeals once and for all.

In its letter, the ACLU of Michigan explained that the First Baptist Church's proposed use of its facilities is religious exercise protected by the Religious Land Use Act of 2000, a federal law which prohibits any land use regulation that burdens the ability of a religious institution to advance its religious mission. Courts have ruled that zoning boards may not make decisions that burden the free exercise of religion simply because neighbors object.

“It is our understanding,” the letter stated, “that the First Baptist Church has taken reasonable measures to limit the number of clients SOS will serve (no more than thirty) and the hours of service (no overnight stays). If the First Baptist Church is prohibited from using its facilities to assist the poor in accordance with its religious beliefs and mission, its religious exercise would be substantially burdened.”