LANSING, Mich. Lansing City council members have a thin line to tread on when it comes to City Rescue Mission, a Christian ministry that provides food and shelter for those in need within Lansing. The religious institution seeks permission to expand its activities. Randy Barton, Senior Director of Operations for the organization, presented a pitch for approval for a new location, during the Sept. 18 meeting. The issue is one excerpt of the City Rescue Mission’s doctrinal statement may conflict with the Lansing Human Rights Ordinance (HRO). This brings a new problem to the City’s table.
All employees and volunteers of the institution are required to sign a statement that includes 12 items broken up into two sections. Item number four on the second section of the list cites “sexual sins” that include “homosexuality, lesbianism, and bisexuality” to name a few. They also state that the only legitimate marriage is the joining of one man and one woman. If a staff member or volunteer is involved in what the institution describes as “sexual sins”, the person will be removed immediately from their position or service.
The concern from the council is not with approving the zoning request. That is a separate vote that cannot be affected by the doctrine. The concern for human rights cannot be used to deny the request of the mission so the council is continuing the zoning request process without the influence of the statement. Instead, the concern is that after approval goes through and an immense amount of work is put into the new location there could be repercussions on the City Rescue Mission and possibly the city. These could include fines, legal action pursued by the city attorney, or further federal or state investigation if the doctrine violates the HRO or further anti-discriminatory laws.
In the meeting, after reading the “sexual sins” clause in the organization’s statement, 1st Ward Council Member Ryan Kost raised concerns about the possibility of conflicts with the Lansing Human Rights Ordinance, to the city attorney: “Before we even look at this, is that a violation of the Lansing Human Rights Ordinance?”. The answer to this question remains open. The ordinance in Lansing needs to be revisited,” Kost said in a later interview. “It’s extremely broad when it comes to religious exemptions.”
Courtesy of the Lansing government page, the Human Rights Ordinance states that: “The City of Lansing prohibits discrimination or harassment based on irrelevant human characteristics and discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations or service.” While it lists several examples of possible violations, Kost explained that because of how the current ordinance was broadly written, essentially the clause in the doctrine is legal. The current HRO builds a lack of specificity as to who religious associations can choose to serve and, in this case, keep on staff due to religious freedoms and beliefs as well.
“I believe in the right of someone to believe whatever they want,” Kost clarified. “But we have to draw a line somewhere when it becomes weaponized against people.” Due to this ordinance, and even though City Rescue Mission is not funded by the city, there is a current grey area when it comes to protecting the citizens of Lansing and their rights as individuals.
The inflammatory statement within the missions document could align with a given example of HRO violations in the city: “Discrimination in employment by refusing to hire, promoting, or terminating or altering conditions of employment because of an irrelevant characteristic.”
According to Council Member Kost, the next step for the city is to tighten up the ordinance so that it aligns more with federal and state laws to protect all vulnerable communities: religious, African American, LGBTQ+, Latino, or any others that are at risk of being treated differently. In March, it was permanently outlawed to be discriminatory based on sexual orientation or identity due to Governor Gretchen Whitmer signing LGBTQ+ protections into Michigan’s Civil Rights Law. The council must take these issues into consideration to protect everyone involved. “At the end of the day, what we’re talking about here is protecting people,” Kost said. “Unhoused people are our most vulnerable population.”
“It was emotional to read that. It was emotional for my colleagues too, to hear that kind of language on a place that does such great work,” Kost proclaimed while explaining the difficulties that come with the statement from the mission looking for zoning approval.
The City Rescue Mission is looking to purchase and rezone two properties, 415 and 421 W. Kalamazoo St., to expand their mission by creating more space for meals and shelter, as well as a medical center within the new shelter. The organization has been around for 112 years serving the city and spreading the gospel. “You recognize that every face is a person,” Randy Barton said during the meeting. “We hold to our faith, and we service folks of all faiths, every creed, orientation, we welcome them inside our doors.”, he stated.
During his presentation, Barton talked about how City Rescue Mission has moved from sheltering 135 to 250 individuals per night this year. They are also on track to serve 136,000 meals. People who benefited from the institution’s work were present in the meeting to speak in their favor. “I see it as a reason to offer hope for the people who may not have any hope,” said Wendy Shepherd, an army veteran who has used the resources provided by the mission. “I believe the City Rescue Mission treats people as humans and are deserving of respect and dignity.”
Shepherd has been sheltered and fed by those at the City Rescue Mission. She says hearing the gospel gave her something to enjoy before dinner. She defended their arguments for a new and larger facility.
There were also community members who opposed the City Rescue Misson’s request for expansion. “As listening to the councilmembers, there seems to be reasonable doubt as far as having this location,” said Don Morrison, a property owner that has apartments that overlook the proposed new location. He spoke out at the meeting to oppose the zoning out of worry of the overcrowding sidewalks and property, but he also referenced the doctrinal statement that Council Member Kost brought up in the meeting.
“The degree of homelessness in our community is the worst that I’ve ever seen it in 30 years,” said Susan Cancro, Executive Director of Advent House Ministries. Cancro has been working to serve the homeless for three decades with Advent House. “We don’t need division right now, we have a crisis,” Cancro said.
Due to the circumstances of the meeting and time restraints, City Rescue Mission and its advocates were unable to be reached for a further comment outside of what was presented to the council.