Pastor Sues City for “Harassment” Campaign Over Homeless Ministry
Police in Bryan, Ohio, filed charges against Dad’s Place Church Pastor Chris Avell for city code violations at his overnight, downtown shelter for the homeless. Avell’s alleged crimes are for mundane breaches – failing, for example, to provide adequate kitchen and laundry facilities, as well as commercial zoning violations (despite the fact that Dad’s Place is located next to a homeless shelter and across the street from a temporary residence for victims of domestic violence).
Pastor Avell says he tried to work with city officials to address any deficiencies, including installing a hood over a kitchen stove and placing new equipment in the building’s laundry facility. A clear pattern of harassment continued, Avell alleges, with the city even going so far as to issue a press release laying out a narrative suggesting Dad’s Place was a nexus for “criminal mischief, trespassing, overdose, larceny, harassment, disturbing the peace and sexual assault.”
Zoning rules and safety requirements exist for a reason and should be followed yet a municipality goes too far when it leverages such rules to exert undue pressure on anyone acting in good faith to comply. We suspect similar scrutiny could yield a number of infractions with other Bryan businesses and non-profits. Is closing a homeless ministry good public policy? Do the city leaders prefer people sleeping in parks? Are the homeless safer if they freeze to death?
Pastor Avell sees not just bad public policy in the city’s actions, but also deep infringements over religious practice and its expression through charity.
So Avell has filed suit in Ohio federal court accusing the city of violations of the Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As the complaint puts forward, “[t]hose actions discriminate against the Church on the basis of religion, advance no compelling government interest, and are far from the least restrictive means of advancing the City’s purported – albeit pretextual – goals.”
As the lawsuit states:
“No history or tradition justifies the City’s intrusion into the Church’s inner sanctum to dictate which rooms may be used for religious purposes, how the church may go about its religious mission, or at what hours of the day religious activities are permitted.”
While the specifics of this case must be sorted out in court, Protect The 1st has reported on similar cases in which local governments seem to act from an animus toward religion – failing to understand that charitable activity in virtually every faith is a religious expression. Perhaps city officials would do well to look to the Book of Isaiah, which declares, “Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
Protect The 1st will follow this case as it progresses.