Judge blocks restrictions on St. Paul homeless program

Updated: 5:10 p.m. | Posted: 1:53 p.m.

A federal judge has blocked some city restrictions on a program for homeless and low-income people at a St. Paul church while the church challenges the policies in court.

First Lutheran Church in St. Paul is home to the Listening House program, a day shelter and community center that has operated out of the church's basement since last year.

After complaints from neighbors about garbage and loitering, the St. Paul City Council put restrictions on the program that were supposed to go into effect in April. They included capping the number of visitors at 20 per day, limiting hours that visitors are on the property and requiring the organization to post a no-trespassing sign.

The restrictions are inconsistent with the church's longtime mission of serving the poor, said attorney Evan Berquist.

"They even have a huge sign on the church today that says 'All are welcome here,'" Berquist said. "To think they'd be required to have a no-trespassing sign just flew in the face of the church's calling."

First Lutheran Church sued the city in federal court soon after, arguing that the city policies restrict their First Amendment speech and religious rights.

The judge's decision Monday found that the church was likely to prevail against the sign requirement and the 20-person limit based on religious arguments. Chief Judge John Tunheim of the United States District Court of Minnesota issued a preliminary injunction in the church's favor, blocking the enforcement of those two conditions.

"We view it as a clear vindication of the church's rights under federal law and the Constitution and we are very pleased with the result," Berquist said.

The city, Listening House and First Lutheran are in settlement talks, according to city spokesperson Liz Xiong.

"The city recognizes the difficulties with these conditions, and continues towards a resolution that will address concerns for Listening House, First Lutheran and the surrounding community," Xiong said.

The federal court hasn't yet ruled on a motion by the city to dismiss the church's lawsuit. Listening House also filed a similar lawsuit against the city in state court.

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