Rep. Domb seeks to lift restrictions for sanctuary churches

  • State Rep. Mindy Domb

Staff Writer
Published: 3/13/2019 5:52:18 PM

AMHERST — A nine-month extension of a variance will allow the First Congregational Church to continue providing temporary shelter for an undocumented immigrant and father of four from Guatemala.

But even though commissioners on the state’s Building Code Appeals Board March 7 voted 2-1 in favor of allowing the church to continue being a home for Lucio Perez, legislation that will soon be filed by state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, is aimed at making churches automatic “temporary and transient” dwellings, so long as any living space meets town and state building and safety codes.

Domb said Wednesday that the problem facing many churches that want to provide safe harbor as part of practicing religion — including First Congregational, where Perez has been at risk of deportation since October 2017 — is the significant price tag to bring living space up to code for apartments and homes.

“Houses of worship shouldn’t take on exorbitant costs to provide temporary sanctuary,” Domb said, “We don’t want it to be illegal, we want it to be safe.”

The specific language of her bill is being examined and drafted by House counsel, as the attorneys try to find the best way to support the appeals board. Domb said the idea is to take the guesswork out of board decisions.

Rev. Vicki Kemper, minister at the church, said she appreciates Domb’s work, as well as the vote.

“Very relieved and very encouraged” is how Kemper describes the decision. 

The church had been notified following its first variance in October 2017, which ran until January 2019, that there was a time limit to how long the living quarters could be considered temporary before more significant renovations were required, including making the bathroom and shower handicapped-accessible. This would cost at least $75,000, Kemper said.

Kemper said the church was being reclassified as an “R3” structure under the state code, meaning a permanent residence in a commercial zone.

At the appeals board, Kemper was joined by congregation board member Russ Vernon-Jones, Amherst Building Commissioner Rob Morra, Assistant Fire Chief Jeffrey Olmstead, and Domb.

Kemper gave testimony from Morra and Olmstead about renovations already made. 

“We’ve taken a lot of steps to make the building safer,” Kemper said

Vernon-Jones said both town officials were magnificent in their presentations to the appeals board.

“It makes a real difference to know we have the support of the town,” Vernon-Jones said

Morra said the church recently had made major upgrades to the building to include a fire alarm, commercial kitchen ventilation and improved accessibility.

“The church made additional improvements to the areas of the building being occupied to accommodate the temporary living arrangement,” Morra said.

Previously, in support of the church’s variance from the building code, the Town Council adopted a resolution 13-0 requesting the variance be granted.

“Our argument is sanctuary is temporary because it’s day to day,” Vernon-Jones said of Perez’s living situation.

In Northampton, where undocumented Russian immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova has been living in sanctuary in the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence for nearly a year, no such variance has been needed, said the congregation’s president, Laurie Loisel, though a shower has been added to the living quarters.

Domb said her legislation aims to ensure that there is no “chilling” effect on churches that want to house undocumented immigrants, observing that it’s a truly transient condition caused by decisions being made at the White House.

“My role is to make sure the word ‘sanctuary’ should not be the thing that prevents them from getting the variance — just the opposite, in fact,” Domb said.

After counsel finishes the language, it will be assigned to committee, and then Domb will shepherd it through, where she hopes to get buy-in from her colleagues as well as those on the appeals board.

Whatever happens with the legislation, Kemper said her congregation continues to be diligent in efforts to have Perez be able to return to his home in Springfield to be with his family as soon as possible.

“We’re working very hard every day to push this process along,” Kemper said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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