A church that hosts a daytime drop-in center for homeless and lonely people appears poised to settle a lawsuit with St. Paul over restrictions the city had placed on the center, including a limit on the number of people it could serve each day.
The City Council is scheduled to vote on the settlement Wednesday. It has already abandoned enforcement of the restrictions against Listening House, after a November settlement in a separate lawsuit in Ramsey County District Court.
First Lutheran Church in the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood had sued the city in federal court last April, alleging that a set of restrictions on Listening House that included limiting the member of guests to 20 per day violated the church's First Amendment rights as well as its rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. First Lutheran argued that hosting the daytime drop-in center is part of its religious mission and city restrictions on that mission are illegal.
As part of the proposed settlement, the city agrees that the law "is an important and central aspect of its land use decisions, and is a primary consideration in processing and responding to land use applications made to the City." The city also agreed to include language on zoning applications telling religious institutions that they have certain rights under the act.
The city agreed to educate planning and zoning staff members about the requirements of the law.
City Attorney Lyndsey Olson said the training provision of the settlement is meant to help the city do a better job if similar zoning issues involving churches arise in the future.
Evan Berquist, an attorney representing First Lutheran, said he wanted to wait until after the settlement agreement is voted on by the City Council before commenting on it.
Listening House had for years been located near the Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul but was displaced when Catholic Charities demolished the Dorothy Day Center for its new Higher Ground facilities. The center spent $250,000 to renovate the basement of First Lutheran after the city approved its move to the church at 463 Maria Av.
Neighbors started documenting and photographing incidents immediately after the center opened in the summer of 2017. They notified the city about trespassing, drug use, littering, public urination and other offenses.
While many neighbors said Listening House provides needed services, many of those who live closest to the church said it's not an appropriate use in a residential neighborhood home to dozens of small children.
At the very least, they said, the center should check guests' criminal backgrounds and require they not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol before being allowed inside.
In late 2017, the City Council voted to place the new conditions on Listening House. According to center officials, the most onerous condition — especially in the frigid cold of winter — limited the number of guests the center could serve to 20 a day. Listening House regularly assists more than 100 people per day who stop by to socialize, nap, eat, clean up and get clean clothes.
In July, U.S. District Judge John R. Tunheim blocked St. Paul from enforcing the restrictions, ruling that the church was likely to prevail in its lawsuit.
In the November settlement with the city, Listening House agreed to a number of conditions, including encouraging guests to leave the area after Listening House closes, having staff on site one-half hour before and one-half hour after its 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. operating hours and prohibiting the use of alcohol or controlled substances by guests anywhere on the church properties.