Friday, March 1, 2024

Church Sues Ohio City, Officials in Case of Pastor Facing Criminal Charges for Helping Homeless

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A Christian church in Bryan, Ohio has sued the city and several city officials for trying to shut down the church’s religious activities. Its pastor is reportedly facing criminal charges for violating zoning laws by keeping his doors open to help the poor and others in his community.  

On Monday, First Liberty Institute and the law firms Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP and Spengler Nathanson PLL filed the federal lawsuit and motion for a temporary restraining order against city officials seeking to shut down the religious activities of Dad’s Place Church and Pastor Chris Avell.  

The 82-page complaint filed in the U.S. District Court Northern District of Ohio alleges the “targeted” use of zoning codes and other city ordinances against the church violates the church’s rights “under the Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”), and the Rights of Conscience clause of the Ohio Constitution.”

“The Church accordingly seeks equitable relief and damages to prevent the City from violating its fundamental rights to pursue its religious outreach to some of the most vulnerable members of its community,” the complaint said. 

“The ministry of the church is not confined to Sunday morning at 11am,” Avell said. “We welcome anyone to experience the love and truth of Jesus, regardless of the time of day.”

Last week, city officials returned to Dad’s Place for a follow-up reinspection and issued additional citations after the Fire Marshall found a gas leak while the church was housing 20 people, according to a statement issued by the city on Friday.  The city said the church had until Tuesday to bring the building up to code or it “will take appropriate action.”

The city said it became aware that Dad’s Place was allowing individuals to live, on a transient basis on the church property. But the property is located in a C-3 zoning district, allowing churches and other places of assembly to operate as a conditional use. It does not permit residential use on the first floor of any building in the district, the statement said. 

The city also noted it had been accused of failing to support the homeless, even though a homeless shelter that fully complies with the zoning code and fire code operates next to Dad’s Place. 

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Bryan’s mayor should be supporting the church’s efforts, Senior Counsel for First Liberty Jeremy Dys said in a statement.  

“Mayor Schlade spearheaded months of harassment by Bryan, Ohio city officials to repeatedly violate the constitutional and statutory rights of Dad’s Place Church and its pastor, Chris Avell,” Dys said. “Instead of prosecuting a pastor in an effort to drive his congregation from her sight, Mayor Schlade should be supporting a church trying to care for the marginalized in her community (and in the dead of winter). The Constitution and the law demand nothing less.”

Stephen Hartman of Spengler Nathanson said, “We hope the city of Bryan will drop all of these charges and begin talking with us about how Pastor Chris and Dad’s Place will continue to contribute to the wonderful community of Bryan.”

Philip Williamson of Taft Stettinius & Hollister noted how “churches throughout history have been a shelter for anyone seeking a place of safety, and Dad’s Place is no exception.”  

“Ohio and federal law alike protect vital ministries like Dad’s Place, and we look forward to defending those rights,” he said. 

Pastor Faces 18 Criminal Charges 

As CBN’s Faithwire reported earlier this month, Avell is facing 18 criminal charges related to the city’s zoning laws after keeping his church open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

In March 2023, Dad’s Place began operating its ministry 24 hours a day to serve the most vulnerable in its community.  For months, the church did so without incident, First Liberty said. 

Then in November 2023, the city sent a letter ordering the church to stop allowing overnight guests or face criminal prosecution. On New Year’s Eve, police showed up at the church, and handed the pastor a packet of multiple charges and violations.

Avell told CBN Digital why his church decided last year to open its doors around the clock.

“Through some things God had done and what we were seeing, we decided that … it was time to do it so that people can come in day or night and find true rest,” he said. “{And} come in and pray at any time of day.”

Avell said the church had been receiving calls from police in the middle of the night to ask if the house of worship would take in people facing domestic disputes and other issues.

This is one of the reasons Dad’s Place decided to expand its operations. However, authorities began taking issue with purported zoning violations this fall, with the Bryan City Zoning Commission reportedly expressing concern just months after that decision.

Since the church doesn’t have bedrooms, the zoning commission said the house of worship could no longer house the homeless. Avell said, though, that he’s tried to work with the city to remedy any concerns.

Regardless, he said the results of Dad’s Place being open 24/7 have been deeply encouraging.

“We’ve seen many who — if we were not open 24 hours, this wouldn’t happen — come to faith in Christ,” the preacher said. “We’re a church, so that’s our thing … for us, that’s paramount.”

Avell said he believes people’s lives have been enriched, adding that “everyone who walks through the doors of the church walks out a better citizen.”

“You can’t walk in the place and not experience the love of Christ, even if you just walk through the doors for a few minutes,” he said. “It’s just what we’re called to be … the hands and feet of Jesus.”

First Liberty attorney Ryan Gardner told CBN Digital the city’s actions against Avell and Dad’s Place constitute a “head-scratcher.”

“The police were referring people to Dad’s Place and everything was OK until it wasn’t,” the lawyer said. “And what happened is, in November, they got a letter saying that they had to shut their doors and had to put these people with nowhere else to go on the streets.”

Gardner said the ministry serves the “most needy and hurting” and explained that the 18 criminal charges waged against Avell — who continues to keep the church open and defy authorities — is “highly unusual.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “I’ve seen cities come after churches in the civil context when it comes to zoning issues, but to try to hold a pastor criminally liable and even put him in jail for simply caring for the homeless.”

Gardner believes each charge could carry as much as six months in jail on top of a fine.

As for why the police reportedly went from referring people to Dad’s Place to suddenly demanding it stop its activities, Gardner said he’s uncertain.

“It seems to me that somebody in the city is hostile to this ministry and doesn’t want it there,” he said. “The First Amendment protects the right of Dad’s Place to operate its ministry wherever God has called us to do so, and in this case, God has called Dad’s Place to operate exactly where it is.”

Avell has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges against him. His trial has been scheduled for Feb. 9. 

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