Colorado church blocked from sheltering homeless escalates legal fight: "We're commanded to love these people"

Colorado church blocked from sheltering homeless escalates legal fight: "We're commanded to love these people"

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For months, two RVs have sat empty next to The Rock Church in Castle Rock. The church says each day they remain empty is a day someone in need is denied help, and the church's own religious rights are violated.

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"These are people in our community that we want to love, that we're commanded to love," said lead pastor at The Rock, Mike Polhemus.

The church has given shelter to almost a dozen homeless people since 2018.

"A godsend. It really was," said Frederick Krueger.

Krueger told CBS Colorado in January that the church helped him find a stable job and apartment where he still lives today.

"These guys, they never stopped. Had it not been for them, no one else was going to do anything," said Krueger.

But in December, Castle Rock stopped the church from sheltering people in the two RVs after determining it to be a zoning violation. The town says the church itself was involved in the drafting of those zoning rules back in 2003.

"It's hard to say no, and we've had to say no to a number of families that we could have helped," said Polhemus.

After the filing of a civil suit against the town did not lead to compromise, the church is now taking the issue to federal court.

"We filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the church's free exercise of religion has been burdened by the town of Castle Rock," said Jeremy Dys, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute.

The First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty law firm, has taken on The Rock pro bono. They allege the town is depriving the church of their constitutional rights.

"The First Amendment is going to remind them that they can't interfere in a church's right to engage in the free exercise of religion on their own property," said Dys.

They've also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, urging the court to allow the church to continue to shelter people while the suit moves forward.

"As a church, it's not optional. It's actually a mandate from the Bible that we would shelter the homeless, take care of the poor, feed the hungry," said Polhemus.

The lawsuit also claims the town has retaliated against the church by shutting down its onsite coffee bar.

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"The town of Castle Rock has thrown multiple impediments in the way of a church who is simply trying to serve those who need it most," said Dys.

Some community members who live nearby told CBS Colorado they reported the coffee shop to the town and are unhappy with the church's decision to shelter people.

"What would you say to people in the community who call themselves Christians or other churches who don't seem to hold the same view that this is a religious duty?" asked CBS Colorado's Olivia Young.

"I would say one, read your Bible. And I think the thing is that there's a lot of fear in the community about the homeless situations around the nation. We're being very proactive to make sure that those we're bringing in, that it's a safe situation," said Polhemus.

Unrelated to the RVs, The Rock has been planning to create low income workforce housing on their land. Recently, however, the Douglas County Housing Partnership pulled out of that plan. Now, the church says that plan is on pause until they can find a new partner.

Meanwhile, Polhemus says the church will follow their calling to the nation's highest court.

"We're 9 and 0 with the Supreme Court of the United States as an organization. We'd be happy to go back there again and bring this issue to the justices' attention. It would cost the taxpayers of Castle Rock at least $1 million to take this to the Supreme Court," said Dys.

The town of Castle Rock says they are currently in the process of retaining counsel to "rigorously defend the zoning authority of communities."

They say they have not yet been provided a copy of the complaint by the church and cannot otherwise comment on pending litigation.

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