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Homeless Shelter Fights City Hall

ST. LOUIS (CN) - A St. Louis homeless shelter that regularly operates at nine times its capacity claims the city's threats to pull its license violate the shelter operators' religious freedom.

New Life Evangelistic Center, run by the Rev. Larry Rice, sued St. Louis in Federal Court on Tuesday.

New Life holds a hotel permit to provide emergency overnight shelter to the homeless. The permit allows a maximum occupancy of 32.

New Life says it houses an average of 225 to 250 people a night and more than 300 during cold weather.

In response to neighbors' concerns about safety and public urination, the St. Louis Board of Public Service held a series of hearings in 2013 and 2014. The board urged both sides to reach a settlement, and when they did not, the board voted 5-0 in December to declare the shelter a detriment to the neighborhood.

The board voted to revoke the shelter's hotel permit effective May 12, 2015, unless New Life can prove that it is adhering to the 32-person occupancy permit for at least 30 days.

New Life and Rice say they operate on Biblical principals, including Matthew 25:31-46, which states that those who have received God's grace are called to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry and care for the sick and imprisoned.

They say that providing housing and services to the less fortunate "is an essential and indispensible function of the church's religious worship and beliefs."

Revoking New Life's permit would violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the First and 14th Amendments, the Missouri Constitution and the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the church says in the lawsuit.

It says no drugs or alcohol are allowed on the property and that it employs Sentry Security to patrol the property between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Mayor Francis Slay's administration has been critical of New Life, claiming the group does little to rehabilitate the homeless. City officials plan to open two new homeless shelters by mid-April that will have 225 beds.

"With the city's addition of 225 emergency shelter beds, homeless people will soon have access to temporary shelter that is responsible, treats them with dignity and helps them get back on their feet," City Councilman Winston Calvert told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "The city's plan to expand services will move forward regardless of NLEC's attempt to preserve its outdated model of warehousing homeless people."

New Life disputes the notion that it "warehouses" the homeless. In addition to basic shelter, New Life says it offers transitional housing, a 90-day program for women and veterans and a two-year leadership training program as "a hand up rather than a handout."

New Life wants the city enjoined from shutting down the shelter.

It is represented by Todd A. Lubben, with Brown & James.

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