A federal judge's ruling that an outreach to sex offenders violated the U.S. Fair Housing Act demonstrates the complexities churches and ministries face in serving "the least of these."
The case concerns Matthew 25 Ministries, which in 2008 leased a complex of duplexes and houses in Pahokee, Florida, to create a community of recovering sex offenders. One problem: A state law prohibits convicted sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a public-school bus stop.
Matthew 25 founder Dick Witherow first tried to persuade the school board to relocate the stop. When that failed, he tried to convince families with children to move.
Witherow said the company it leased the homes from, Alston Management, had agreed to relocate the families at no charge to another complex it owned. But according to court records, the company notified 25 families they would be evicted if they didn't leave by January 1, 2009.
The notices sparked lawsuits in state and federal courts. U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas ruled recently that both the ministry and Alston were guilty of discrimination on the basis of familial status.
Witherow said the ruling won't affect his ministry since Matthew 25 has no assets. "We didn't discriminate against anybody," he said. "We love children and wouldn't allow anything that would allow us to be put in that light."
Prison Fellowship vice president Pat Nolan said the situation is far broader than Matthew 25 or sex offenders, illustrating the difficulties any ministry that works with an unpopular constituency faces. "It's a 'not-in-my-backyard' problem."
Matthew 25 isn't alone in seeing a ministry hurt some while it helps others, said Galen Carey, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals. "Food aid can distort local markets and is sometimes ruinous to local farmers. Slavery redemption programs sometimes create a market for more slave raiding," he said. "The general issue of unintended consequences resulting from inadequate planning and contextual analysis is a common one."
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Previous Christianity Today articles on the difficulties encountered in outreach include:
A Senior Moment | The elderly population is steadily growing and will be for years. How some ministries are embracing the challenge. (December 21, 2011)
Trading Spaces: Inner City Helps the Suburbs | Suburban poor change the direction of ministry. (November 10, 2011)
Persecution Prompts Missions Agency to Transform | Operation Mobilization India transforms itself into a local witness. (October 21, 2011)
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