In reversal, Whatcom council offers $750K to Christian group
May 24, 2023 at 4:32 p.m.
Lighthouse Mission Ministries, which provides shelter and meals to homeless people in Bellingham, will receive $750,000 from Whatcom County for an industrial kitchen in its new 300-bed shelter. The county council voted 4–1 on May 23 to approve the outlay of federal COVID-19 relief dollars for the shelter kitchen, reversing its initial decision on the funding.
Two weeks earlier, council had taken the unusual step of casting a negative vote. It voted 4–1 on May 9 to not give $750,000 of unallocated American Rescue Plan Act funds to Lighthouse Mission Ministries. Council member Carol Frazey asked the council at the time to exclude the Christian organization from county funding due to what she called its discriminatory hiring practices.
Frazey said Lighthouse Mission’s hiring policy wasn’t compatible with the county’s own stance toward discrimination, particularly toward members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Their hiring practices discriminate,” Frazey said. “As a county, I don’t think most of our constituents would want us to discriminate in that way.”
Lighthouse Mission does not directly exclude LGBTQ+ individuals from employment but does require staff to adhere to “the traditional tenets of the Christian faith,” CEO Hans Erchinger-Davis said in an interview. Those tenets include “abstaining from sexual contact outside of Biblical marriage, between one man and one woman.”
The council’s reversal on May 23 came after a closed-door meeting with a county attorney that afternoon. Council members declined to elaborate on the discussion that took place during the executive session, although such sessions are usually convened to discuss potential litigation.
Erchinger-Davis said Lighthouse had not indicated to the county that it would sue over the council’s decision to withhold funding, but he said such a lawsuit would have been an “open and shut case” in the Christian group’s favor.
“We saw their decision from a couple of weeks ago as illegal,” Erchinger-Davis said on May 24. “You can’t discriminate against religious groups, like they were doing with that decision.”
“Frankly, it’s a win not just for Christians but for Muslims and Sikhs and Jews, and anyone of faith that wants to partner in the community to get projects done,” Erchinger-Davis added.
Council member Kathy Kershner initiated the discussion of funding Lighthouse Mission’s kitchen at the May 23 meeting.
“They’re actually one of the agencies that’s successful with our homeless population and has a good track record of picking people up off the streets, literally, and helping them move through all the issues affecting them,” said Kershner, who voted for the $750,000 grant to Lighthouse with council members Barry Buchanan, Tyler Byrd and Ben Elenbaas.
Frazey, who cast the lone “no” vote, said on May 24 that she had been advised not to comment.
Erchinger-Davis said the county money would enable Lighthouse Mission to double its current capacity of 750 meals prepared a day. The kitchen also will be a learning space for people interested in entering the culinary field, he said.
With the county funds, Lighthouse Mission has raised $18.5 million so far for its new $25 million shelter, to be completed in 2024 at 910 W. Holly St.
“We still need support to finish it off, but my board and myself are confident that will come in, in the next year,” Erchinger-Davis said.