Court: Church's Challenge to Hamilton County Tent City Ban Can Advance

New Prospect Baptist Church says the county's ban on tent cities for those experiencing homelessness violates its rights to pursue its religious mission. It will get a chance to submit briefs on its case to the court in April.

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click to enlarge Tent city in Over-the-Rhine - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Tent city in Over-the-Rhine

A challenge to a county-wide ban on tent cities enacted by Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman over the summer can continue, the Ohio First District Court of Appeals has ruled.

New Prospect Baptist Church in Roselawn is contesting the ban after it offered space to a couple dozen inhabitants of a series of tent cities in downtown and Over-the-Rhine the city tried to remove this summer. After a series of bans focused on larger and larger portions of downtown and surrounding areas, Ruehlman issued the county-wide ban in August.

Ruehlman's ban prohibits those without homes from camping in public or private spaces in the county unless there is no capacity in shelters. Advocates for those experiencing homelessness say there isn't enough room in the city's current shelter facilities, something city officials contest.

The church's challenge isn't the only legal action to spring from the ruling. The Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition filed a lawsuit on behalf of two residents of the camp in U.S. District Court.

Attorneys representing an inhabitant of the camps named Joe Phillips filed a lawsuit in federal district court this summer alleging that Ruehlman's restraining order effectively makes it illegal to be homeless.

The Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition Nov. 19 filed amendments to the original lawsuit seeking to block the city and county “from detaining or arresting citizens experiencing homelessness, and from seizing or destroying their property,” and to block an injunction that effectively made sleeping outside illegal in Hamilton County.

The struggle isn't isolated to Cincinnati: places as disparate as Akron, Ohio, Boise, Idaho and San Francisco have also wrestled with similar moves by municipalities. The ongoing litigation — in Cincinnati and elsewhere — could have big implications for the ways in which people who do not have access to housing are treated.

In Akron, a similar situation unfolded last summer when city officials told property owner Sage Lewis that he must disband his Homeless Charity Village, home to about 50 people otherwise experiencing homelessness. The camp existed on his property for a year and a half. In September, Akron City Council voted to order Lewis to vacate the camp by Thanksgiving, something he said he didn’t believe was possible. He filed a lawsuit to challenge the city’s right to order him to clear his land. The standoff between Lewis and the city, still in the courts, drew national media coverage.

New Prospect's attorney argues the ban keeps the church from exercising its religious mission. The Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office, however, says the church doesn't have legal standing to challenge the ban. The three First District judges disagreed in their Jan. 24 ruling, however, and now both the church and the county must file briefs outlining their arguments by April.

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