Ohio Pastor Threatened by City Despite Court Order

Ohio Pastor Threatened by City Despite Court Order

An Ohio city’s “blatant hostility” against a church-based homeless ministry continues despite a court order protecting the ministry’s right to continue serving the city’s needy, attorneys for the ministry say.

On April 24, officials from the city of Bryan, Ohio, once again went after Pastor Chris Avell of Dad’s Place, threatening a fine of $1,000 a day if he did not cease the church’s 24/7 ministry to the homeless by May 1.

The next day, First Liberty Institute, along with law firms Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP and Spengler Nathanson PLL, filed a motion to show cause against the city on Avell’s behalf.

The U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Ohio issued an order back in January forbidding Bryan officials from enforcing the city’s zoning or fire codes against Avell without the court’s approval or the church’s agreement.

However, city officials showed up at Dad’s Place at 5:30 a.m. on April 24 for a surprise inspection, slapping on two fire code violations. They alleged that the 24/7 ministry constituted an unlawful change of use, and that the church had to install an automatic sprinkler system to be in compliance. The citation threatened a fine of $1,000 per day if the church did not cease its 24/7 homeless ministry by May 1.

Both parties met over Zoom on April 25, the motion says, but they were unable to resolve the issue.

According to First Liberty, the city’s actions against Dad’s Place contributed to the death of a congregant on April 12 who suffered from seizures and had been sleeping at the church so that he would not be alone during the night. Fearing retribution from the city for allowing him to sleep at the church, the church moved the man to an apartment, where he suffered a seizure episode alone and died.

Avell started opening the church to the homeless 24 hours a day, seven days a week in March 2023. The local homeless shelter was usually full and had to turn away hundreds of people every year.

In November, the city sent a letter and posted a sign warning the church that it would face criminal prosecution if it did not stop housing and feeding the homeless on church property. The charges were filed on New Years’ Eve, when police reportedly came to the church and gave Avell a packet listing the charges against him.

The city dropped charges against Avell earlier this year, and the church engaged in good faith settlement discussions with officials at a mediation with a magistrate judge in February. Dad’s Place agreed to cancel the preliminary injunction hearing scheduled for March 4, and has since addressed many of the safety issues brought up by the city.

Last Thursday’s motion requests a hearing requiring the city of Bryan to show cause for why they should not be held in contempt for violating the court’s January order. It also renews the previously filed motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.

“Mayor Schlade and city officials demonstrated once again that they have no respect for the First Amendment or for the court,” said Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for First Liberty.  “The city’s blatant hostility toward Dad’s Place and the court is repugnant.”

Photo: First Liberty Institute

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