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Judge rejects group’s attempt to open safe injection site in Philadelphia

A federal judge in Philadelphia rejected a nonprofit’s attempt to open a safe drug-injection site in the city.

Safehouse, the organization that seeks to provide overdose prevention services, said the threat of prosecution by the Department of Justice over potentially violating drug laws is hindering its religious rights as a group.

The organization said its mission is “inspired and informed by classic Judeo-Christian beliefs” and the desire to preserve life, care for the sick and help neighbors, U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh said in his ruling.

But McHugh argued that Safehouse hasn’t shown explicitly that it is a religious organization. The judge said the organization has “noble intentions” to address the health crisis the city has seen with opioid use, “but their religious inspiration does not provide a shield against prosecution for violation of a federal criminal statute barring its operation.”

Safehouse, McHugh said, is an entity that is unaffiliated with any specific faith or religious organization.

The group, he wrote, says it should be protected “for its non-religious actions, based solely upon the religious motivation of its founders,” but that’s not enough to gain protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The organization’s lawyer, Ilana Eisenstein of DLA Piper, said in a statement that it was disappointed and reviewing its options for next steps.

“We respectfully disagree with the judge and believe federal law permits Safehouse to exercise its religious beliefs by saving the lives of people in need,” the organization said.

“As the Judge wrote in his opinion, the public health crisis continues unabated. Amid this crisis, federal and local government have not taken steps to provide relief,” Safehouse’s statement said.

According to Safehouse’s website, safe injection sites are a method of harm reduction in substance use treatment, whereby controlling the environments and certain elements of drug use, there will be “safer use, managed use, and medication-supported treatment plans.”

Safehouse said prevention services save lives by reducing the number of fatal overdoses, limiting the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C, curtailing drug use in other public spaces and connecting people with other services.

Updated at 3:49 p.m.

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