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Bill on tent cities invokes freedom of religion

A state bill that prohibits cities from enacting ordinances which “unreasonably interfere” with churches’ decisions to provide shelter to the homeless is being heard in the state Senate this week, after the House of Representatives passed the legislation.

According to Mercer Island City Attorney Katie Knight, the Mercer Island Clergy Association is closely following the bill in Olympia, as it applies to their freedom in hosting Tent City on Mercer Island.

“The clergy association is still talking with the city. I think they’re also waiting to see what happens with this bill,” she said.

House Bill 1956, drafted by state representative Brendan Williams, was reintroduced to state legislators earlier this year. The House of Representatives passed the bill on Feb. 10, 57 to 39. Two members were excused. The bill went on to a public hearing in the Senate Committee on Human Services and Corrections for discussion on Feb. 18. According to Washington state Legislature coordinator Gerry Sheehan, HB 1956 still has a few hoops to jump before reaching the Senate.

“The next step is for the [Committee on Human Services and Corrections] to vote it out of committee or not,” he explained. “After that, it goes to the rules committee and then to the floor of the Senate. This could take until the end of the session, March 11.”

The section of HB 1956 that concerns Mercer Island clergy members is the first. Earlier this year, the association expressed dismay with the city’s recently passed Temporary Encampment Ordinance. Members argued that stipulation 2.A.20, which mandates that religious organizations hosting Tent City must obtain warrant and sex offender checks with King County for residents, challenged their Constitutional right under the Fourth Amendment.

“Although the [warrant check] system is being done by Tent City anyway, we have a problem with it being mandated by the city. The police department cannot constitutionally run these checks. And now the city is asking churches to act as an agent of the government on their behalf,” clergy association member Susan Wanwig told the Reporter on Feb. 10.

The association has since been talking with city staff and hopes that a resolution can be made.

Member Hunt Priest, of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, said that so far, conversation has been “friendly.”

The Clergy Association continues to meet with the city weekly to discuss the issue.

As for whether the association will use HB 1956 to support its argument against portions of the Mercer Island Temporary Encampment Ordinance, is not yet certain.

“We’re definitely aware of HB 1956, and it’s in the middle of our conversations, but nothing specific,” Priest said. “There are parts of the ordinance that we feel need to be changed to [comply with] the U.S. Constitution and to be more welcoming for Tent City. We’re still trying to figure out how to make this a win-win situation.”

For more information on HB 1956, and other upcoming bills, visit the state Legislature’s home page at www.leg.wa.gov/pages/home.aspx.

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