COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A Christian church in Ohio filed a federal lawsuit this week after its pastor was charged with violating city ordinances when he opened up the sanctuary around the clock for homeless people and others to find shelter.
Police this month filed 18 criminal charges against Dad’s Place church Pastor Chris Avell over allegations the rented church building — located by a separate homeless shelter along Main Street in Bryan, a city of about 8,600 in northwestern Ohio — was violating the zoning ordinance, lacked proper kitchen and laundry facilities, and had unsafe exits and inadequate ventilation.
An attorney for Avell and the church, Jeremy Dys, said he thinks city leaders don’t want the ministry in the middle of town, describing it as a “not in my backyard” issue and accusing officials of inventing problems.
“Nothing satisfies the city,” Dys said Monday, hours after the lawsuit was filed. “And worse — they go on a smear campaign of innuendo and half-truths.”
An initial meeting with the federal judge and lawyers for Bryan and the church was scheduled for Tuesday morning.
Avell, who pleaded not guilty during in municipal court Jan. 11, said in a release that his church wants to welcome anyone “to experience the love and truth of Jesus, regardless of the time of day.”
The defendants are the city, Bryan Mayor Carrie Schlade, and other Bryan officials.
“We absolutely deny any allegation that the city has treated any religious institution inappropriately,” said Bryan city attorney Marc Fishel, noting that Schlade supported the church opening in the building four years ago. “The city has been and continues to be interested in any business, any church, any entity complying with local and state law.”
The church’s lawsuit said its leaders decided in March to remain open at all hours as a temporary, emergency shelter “for people to go who have nowhere else to go and no one to care for them.” Eight people stay there on a typical night, they say, and a few more when weather is bad.
The church’s policy has been to let anyone stay overnight and won’t ask them to leave “unless there is a biblically valid reason for doing so or if someone at the property poses a danger to himself or others,” according to the complaint. Held from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m., the church’s “Rest and Refresh in the Lord” ministry, overseen by two volunteers, includes scriptural readings piped in under dim lights, and anyone is allowed to come or go.
The city said in a news release that police calls to investigate inappropriate activity at the church began to increase in May, giving as examples criminal mischief, trespassing, theft, and disturbing the peace.
Bryan’s planning and zoning administrator gave the church 10 days to stop housing people, saying it was in a zone that does not permit residential use on the first floor. After an inspection about two weeks later, charges against Avell for code violations were sought by the local police in early December.
Since then, the lawsuit claims, “the city has repeatedly attempted to harass and intimidate the church,” while the church has tried to address the city’s complaints by making changes that include installation of a new stove hood and a decision to shut down laundry facilities.
Dys said that the church is not permitting criminal activity to take place and that the police calls there have been made to sound more serious than they actually were, or to seem related to church activity when they were not.
“The city is creating problems in order to gin up opposition to this church existing in the town square,” Dys said.
The church wants a federal judge to protect what it says are violations of constitutional rights to free exercise of religion and protections against government hostility to religion.
“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 accomplishing its religious mission, or at what hours of the day religious activities are permitted,” the lawsuit said.
The church wants a federal judge to issue a restraining order or an injunction to keep the city and top officials from “enforcing or applying the city’s ordinances to burden the plaintiff’s religious exercise.” It also seeks damages and attorneys’ fees.
Scolforo reported from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.