ACLU claims Fort Collins violated rights of church trying to start locker program for homeless

Samantha Ye

The American Civil Liberties Union has now joined the controversial battle about installing lockers for the homeless population outside a local church.

In a letter sent to Fort Collins City Attorney Carrie Daggett on June 29, the ACLU alleges that by subjecting the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship, the church looking to install the 24/7 accessible lockers, to an “unusual and difficult” approval process, the City has placed a “substantial burden” on the church, thus violating federal and constitutional law.

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The letter came partially as a response to an email sent out by Daggett to City staff on May 31, the day a hearing on the proposed lockers was scheduled but ultimately postponed.

“Please be sure to coordinate with us regarding any further dialogue with the public or with (church pastor) Steve Ramer about this,” Daggett wrote. “Because the approach being taken is not quite the same as our usual process, and because the special discussions amongst staff could be used as a basis for arguing that we are treating the Church less favorably than other applicants based on the Church’s religious practices (ministering to the homeless), we need to take special care in how we communicate about it.”

By mistake, the email was also sent to FCMF pastor, Steve Ramer. Ramer said he contacted the ACLU shortly after.

Daggett’s email “appeared to admit the City recognized its special treatment of the church was likely unlawful,” according to the ACLU memo.

Daggett, however, disputes that interpretation in a response to the ACLU on July 9. The unusual approach to the project actually refers to the “special care” the City has given to ensure the project receives fair and consistent processing, Daggett wrote.

The FCMF, which sits just beside the Old Town Library, has been attempting to start a pilot project of providing a handful of lockers for homeless individuals to store their belongings, to be accessible 24 hours every day. 

The project idea was initially put forth last year by City Council as way of meeting a growing demand for accessible lockers.

Council eventually denied the project City funding in February. In response, the FCMF opened a GoFundMe for the locker project and quickly exceeded their goal of $8,000.

The lockers have since been installed, but the program has not begun.

That is because on April 18, the church was alerted to the need to apply for a Minor Adjustment approval in order to comply with City land use code, Ramer said.

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He was told because the lockers are for public member use and not only congregation members, that is a minor amendment to the land use of the church, Ramer said.

The application was set to be heard at the May 31 Planning and Zoning board meeting but has since been delayed twice and is now set for Thursday night.

ACLU lawyers will be at the board meeting to represent the church’s interest, Ramer said.  

The homeless lockers are located outside Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship on E Oak St. (Natalie Dyer | Collegian)

The ACLU claims that the allegedly unnecessary Minor Adjustment process and board review singles out the church, and thus interferes with the First Amendment’s call for free exercise of religion. They also claim this violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prevents government from implementing land use codes unequally between religious and secular organizations.

Daggett wrote that because of the contentious nature of the project and it’s projected impact on public safety, the City wanted the project open to public review. (And if the several dozens of emails already sent to City staff say anything, it is that people have opinions about this issue.)

The review itself does not create a substantial burden, especially since the church could avoid it by putting the lockers indoors, Daggett wrote, and thus requiring it does not violate any equal treatment laws.

Ramer took issue with the City’s main concern of public safety, stating he has never seen compelling evidence to suggest the lockers would make it an issue.

“There’s this stereotype that people have that if you offer something to a homeless person that they will misuse it or abuse it for criminal reasons,” Ramer said. “(It’s) the idea that we can’t even trust them with a locker.”

The most recent staff report still recommends the board approve the lockers but requires several new conditions not present in the first staff report Ramer received on May 31. Those conditions are:

  1. The church must install a security camera to monitor activity around the lockers, and footage must be retained for seven days.
  2. The lockers may only operate between 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
  3. FCMF must restrict locker access outside of normal hours of operation.
  4. Staff must be present at all operating hours to supervise the lockers

Ramer said the conditions were not only impossible for the resource-limited church to meet, they make the entire project redundant as its purpose was to provide 24/7 accessible lockers.

Other resources such as the Murphy Center already provide lockers with limited time accessibility, and Ramer hoped the FCMF lockers could serve as a complement.

Whether or not the board approves the project, the final decision can still be appealed, meaning the future of the project remains uncertain.

However, Ramer has confidence.

“I’m not sure what will happen,” he said. “We are going to do this.”

Collegian reporter Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.