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Ohio pastor fights court battle with city over shelter for unhoused people

Ohio pastor fights court battle with city over shelter for unhoused people

A Christian pastor is fighting back against a city in Ohio after it charged him with breaking a municipal law by opening up his place of worship to unhoused people as well as others who need shelter.

Police in Bryan, Ohio, filed 18 charges accusing Chris Avell – the pastor of Dad’s Place – with zoning violations at his rented church building. Officers alleged that the church lacked proper kitchen and laundry facilities, safe exits and adequate ventilation, as required.

Avell pleaded not guilty. Then his church sued Bryan’s government in federal court on Monday, arguing the city has violated the pastor’s constitutional rights to religious freedom.

Despite Avell making changes trying to address the city’s complaints, including the installation of a stove hood and closing its laundry facility, the church alleges in its lawsuit that officers are still harassing and intimidating them.

An attorney for Avell and the church, Jeremy Dys, said he suspects city leaders do not want a ministry for the unhoused in the middle of town. He described it as a “not in my backyard” – or, colloquially, “Nimby” – issue that his client’s lawsuit seeks to reframe as a test of the federal rights of free religious exercise and protection against government intrusion on religion.

“Nothing satisfies the city,” Dys said on Monday, hours after the lawsuit was filed. “And worse – they go on a smear campaign of innuendo and half-truths.”

Dys also accused the city of “creating problems in order to gin up opposition to this church existing in the town square”.

The defendants in the church’s lawsuit – the city of Bryan, its mayor, Carrie Schlade, and other municipal officials – deny allegations that any religious institution has been dealt with inappropriately.

“The city has been and continues to be interested in any business, any church, any entity complying with local and state law,” an attorney for the city, Marc Fishel, said.

The church said in its lawsuit that 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”.

On average, eight people stay there each night, and a few more do so when weather is bad, the church said.

The city said police received complaints of criminal mischief, trespassing, theft and disturbing the peace and requests to investigate generally inappropriate activity at the church.

The church said its policy had been to let anyone stay overnight and not to 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.

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The church holds a “rest and refresh in the Lord” ministry from 11pm to 8am, which includes scriptural readings piped in under dim lights. It is open to anyone.

The city argues these actions constitute housing, and the church is in a zone that does not permit residential use on the first floor of a building.

Bryan’s planning and zoning administrator gave the church 10 days to stop housing people. After an inspection, police in December sought charges against Avell for code violations.

The church wants a federal judge to enforce its rights to free exercise of religion and protection from government hostility. It also seeks a restraining order keeping Bryan officials from taking action against the church in connection with the charges in the case that were obtained by police, and the church additionally is pursuing damages along with attorneys’ fees.

“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 church said in its lawsuit.

Dys added in a statement: “Instead of supporting a church that is trying to help citizens going through some of the worst situations in their lives (and in the dead of winter), the city seems intent on intimidating the church into ending its ministry to vulnerable citizens or relocating it somewhere out of mayor Schlade’s sight. The constitution and the law say otherwise.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting

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