Santos bill defending rights of religious organizations to provide homeless accommodations becomes law

OLYMPIA – On Tuesday, Governor Jay Inslee signed into law Substitute House Bill 1754, which upholds and protects the civil right of religious organizations to host people experiencing homelessness.

Local land use regulations have impeded the ability of religious organizations, in exercise of their faith, to provide homeless accommodations.  Several cities and counties have adopted extensive permitting requirements, building code upgrades, and other conditions which, despite being designed to keep people safe, can end up contributing to the homelessness crisis, argued prime sponsor Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-Seattle).

Federal law protects the operation of faith-based homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and other social services as an exercise of religion under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).  This Act, which Congress passed unanimously, prohibits discriminatory or unduly burdensome land use regulations.

SHB 1754 strikes a balance between the responsibility of local government to protect public health and safety and the right of religious organizations to shelter people experiencing homelessness. Except for certain sanitary and emergency requirements, local jurisdictions can no longer limit the ability of a religious institution to provide temporary small houses, indoor overnight shelters, or outdoor encampments on its own land.

“Religious organizations are some of our most vital allies in combatting homelessness around the state,” said Santos. “Preventing them from helping people in need not only hurts these organizations, it affects everyone living in Washington—homeless or not.”

“The bill will help churches, temples, synagogues, and other faith-based organizations fulfill their missions to serve communities and help people who need it most.”

SHB 1754 passed both the House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support, receiving a unanimous final passage vote on March 7th. With the Governor’s signature, the bill takes effect in June this year.