Group: BI affordable housing effort ‘unconstitutional’

A separation of church and state organization in Washington, D.C., has sent a letter to Bainbridge Island leaders.

The letter to City Council members says Americans United has received a complaint about a BI church trying to develop affordable housing. The letter alleges the city is trying to implement an “unconstitutional” state statute. The state law says that any city or county planning affordable housing must provide a religious organization an “increased density bonus.”

“From what we can determine, this chapter does not provide any comparable automatic zoning benefits to any other group involved in affordable housing projects,” the letter states. While Americans United says it applauds the desire to incentivize affordable housing, the provision for religious organizations violates the First Amendment.

Because of that, the letter asks that the city either abandon that effort or provide the same automatic increased density bonus to any developer. It adds the Constitution prohibits government from taking any action that communicates a message of “endorsement of religion.”

“The Supreme Court has consistently and unequivocally held that the Establishment Clause bars any governmental aid program that ‘defines its recipients by reference to religion.’ To be constitutional, governmental aid must, at the very least, ‘[be] allocated on the basis of neutral, secular criteria that neither favor nor disfavor religion, and [be] available to both religious and secular beneficiaries on a nondiscriminatory basis.’”

The letter goes on to state court rulings that say: “a government-aid program must … allocate benefits in an evenhanded manner to a broad and diverse spectrum of beneficiaries” and must not “determine a recipient’s eligibility for benefits” based on the recipient’s “religious character”).

The letter adds; “Accordingly, federal courts have repeatedly blocked governmental attempts to provide special benefits to religious groups or individuals in general or to specific religious entities in particular.”

Americans United says the state law “does not appear to pass constitutional muster under this case law…The city of Bainbridge Island must, therefore, either refuse to implement the statute or implement it in a manner that provides the same benefits to religious and nonreligious groups on an equal basis.”

The letter, signed by Americans United staff attorney Ian Smith, asks for a response within 30 days so it can decide how to proceed.

Bethany Lutheran Church on BI has been working with the city on trying to develop affordable housing on its property.