Scott Ball / Rivard Report
An attorney representing a church on San Antonio’s East Side has warned City officials of legal ramifications if the City denies a zoning change request that would allow the church to open a migrant youth shelter.
Daniel Dalton of the Detroit-based Dalton & Tomich law firm sent a letter to the City of San Antonio on Tuesday in which he said a denial of the request by Second Baptist Church would violate state and federal laws that protect the church’s right to exercise its religion and mission to serve children in need.
The church is asking for a zoning change to increase the permissible overnight occupancy of its new community center, which would become a temporary shelter for unaccompanied children who cross the border. It would be operated by Arizona-based VisionQuest, which is under contract with the federal government to open two shelters in the San Antonio area; the other is planned for Universal City.
“… the Church simply wishes to continue its religious mission and minister to the children impacted by the situation at the southern border,” Dalton wrote. “The Church also wishes to avoid expensive and lengthy litigation with the City. Therefore, I encourage the City Council and the Mayor to reject any calls to discriminate against the Church’s proposed facility.”
The church’s threat of litigation is “not productive to the review process,” City Attorney Andy Segovia said in an email to the Rivard Report.
“At issue here is simply whether or not the community facility, which is currently used for educational and recreational activities, can meet the local, state, and federal regulations to provide temporary housing services for migrant children.”
The church can continue to operate on its campus, Segovia said, but if VisionQuest opens a shelter under a government contract the shelter operator can’t engage in inherently religious activities per federal regulations.
There are other state licensing requirements for migrant shelters, he said, and the City also will require compliance with those if the shelter opens.
Click here to view the zoning application and Dalton’s letter.
“VisionQuest hired [Dalton & Tomich] to assist with local permitting for our selected properties,” said Jeffery Bender, a spokesman for VisionQuest.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2), and Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) have stated they are opposed to the shelter.
“I’m sympathetic to the church’s desire to generate revenue and be self-sustaining, but I am not comfortable with dropping a facility like this in the heart of our city,” Nirenberg said earlier this month. “The City will not be an accomplice to establishing another for-profit facility that will detain migrant children indefinitely as the humanitarian crisis at the border continues to be unresolved.”
Andrews-Sullivan and Calvert, who represent the East Side area in which the church is located, cited the questionable reputation of VisionQuest, the company that plans to rent the Church’s community center and operate the shelter.
Andrews-Sullivan and Nirenberg could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Dalton’s letter was submitted with the formal zoning change application. The Zoning Commission makes recommendations to City Council, which has the final say on zoning changes. A hearing on the request has not been scheduled.
Dalton cited the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal statute prohibiting the government from imposing land use regulations that pose a “substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person” or religious institution. He also cited the new Texas Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, a state law similar to RLUIPA, as well as the federal Fair Housing Act.
The latter is relevant to Second Baptist’s case because “as a temporary facility for migrant children, the Church’s facility would implicate three protected classes: race/country of origin, religion, and homelessness.
“There would also be no question that the City is engaging in disparate treatment of the Church,” Dalton wrote.
Councilman Manny Peleaz (D8), who is a labor attorney, said the zoning change request should be judged on its merits.
“I look at community needs, character of neighborhoods, the priorities of neighborhood leaders, and compatible land use,” he said. “That’s not religious discrimination. That’s what we’re elected to do.
“The letter is disturbing in its tone-deafness. They are claiming they’re victims of government oppression because the zoning commission and council won’t let them operate a prison where poor people’s babies will be held against their will?”
The zoning request would allow the church to increase its current occupancy limit for its community center from 19 children to 90. VisionQuest signed a $3.2 million preliminary lease with the church, located at 3310 East Commerce St., which would convert its 44,500-square-foot center into a shelter for boys aged 11-17 who entered the U.S. unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.
They would be held at the shelter for a maximum of 90 days and receive medical care, including therapy, and other services while VisionQuest looks for family members or guardians they can stay with while in the U.S., or places them in a foster home, said Harold Arant, who oversees VisionQuest operations in Texas.
The church also considered leasing its $4.1 million community center to a charter school to help it pay off its debts and pay for church programming, Second Baptist Church Deacon Thomas Washington said, but VisionQuest offered a better deal.
“Our plan is for a shelter for unaccompanied migrant youth who came here seeking asylum,” Washington said. “The facility will not be a detention center.”