Is it a case of religious discrimination or an end run around Salt Lake City's ordinances? The Utah Supreme Court will decide.
Justices heard arguments Wednesday on a long-standing legal battle between the Salt Lake City Mission and Salt Lake City over the placement of a religious mission that city officials say was being used essentially as a homeless shelter.
Matthew Hilton, attorney for the mission, said Pastor Wayne Wilson and his group consider feeding, clothing and otherwise helping the homeless to be an integral part of the religious worship. However, attorneys for the city said the group was essentially using their church as a homeless shelter, allowing people to spend the night in violation of zoning ordinances.
Hearing the case in the newly refurbished Supreme Court chambers at the state Capitol, the claims sparked a small debate among attorneys and justices over the practice of freedom of religion.
Justice Michael Wilkins said it appeared the group's method of worship involved taking in "weary travelers" and questioned if Salt Lake City was in fact defining what religious practice was by restricting whether homeless people could spend the night at the Salt Lake City Mission for "overnight services."
Wilkins offered a hypothetical situation of a church whose primary method of worship was playing bagpipes outside. He asked city attorneys if a city ordinance limiting such a practice would be defining religious practice.
City Attorney Jacqueline Gaston said the reason the city has ordinances limiting homeless shelters was to establish standards of safety and that the public has an interest in making sure that land use is proper and safe.
However, Gaston said the court would probably not get to those constitutional issues, mainly because the Salt Lake City Mission did not fully appeal the city's decision to deny its land-use permit, which it applied for in at least three locations near The Gateway.
Gaston said the group was given notice that it could appeal the board of adjustment's decision but never did. Instead, the mission filed suit in state court before it had exhausted its legal remedies at the city level.
Hilton said had they been a secular nonprofit group, he believes the city would have granted its permit for a shelter. But because it is a church, the city discriminated against it, he said.
Gaston denied that claim, stating that city zoning ordinances do not allow a shelter to operate in the areas sought by the mission.
The justices took both arguments into consideration and will issue a written opinion in the coming months.
Outside the hearing, Wilson said for more than eight years the city has balked at giving them a permit. "They have fought us at every location," he said, adding his group has tried over 30 locations within Salt Lake City's limits.
It's not the first time the Salt Lake City Mission has sparked controversy. Back in 1998 the director of the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake was concerned when the former Spectacular Ministries of the Lord's Servants changed its name to the Salt Lake City Mission and was accused of changing its name to dig into Rescue Mission of Salt Lake's charitable contributions.
Wilson said he found Christ while serving 10 years at the Utah State Prison on what he claims were trumped-up sex-abuse charges. He opened up his mission soon after he was paroled in 1994. Shortly after that, city officials protested the operation, and ultimately Wilson's lease for the building next to The Gateway was canceled.
Wilson has denied that the name change was designed to cut into the other mission's donations.Wilson said he now operates a mission for men in West Valley City and a ranch in the West Desert. He hopes that the justices will consider the religious practice claim.