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Pastor and Small Ohio City Tussle Over Legality of His 24/7 Homeless Ministry

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Chris Avell is pastor of Pastor of Dad's Place church, which filed a federal lawsuit after being charged with violating zoning laws by opening the church 24/7 for the homeless and others. (WTVG via AP)
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — 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 next to 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.

Accusations and Defense

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.”

During an initial meeting with the federal judge and lawyers for Bryan on Tuesday morning, both sides agreed to maintain the status quo, Dys said. As a result, he said, the church will remain open to those who seek its religious services until at least March 4, when the judge will consider its request for an injunction against the city.

Avell, who pleaded not guilty in municipal court Jan. 11, said his church wants to welcome anyone, regardless of the time of day.

“I truly believe that everyone who walks through the door of Dad’s Place walks out a better citizen,” Avell said in an interview Tuesday, adding that closing down the around-the-clock ministry “would lose what is actually a beacon of light downtown.”

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 Mission

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.

“It was city police officers who would bring people by,” Avell said. “The local hospital would call and bring people by. Other homeless shelters would call and bring people by.”

The church’s policy has been to let anyone stay overnight and doesn’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 includes Johnny Cash’s reading of the Bible piped in under dim lights, and anyone is allowed to come or go.

Two volunteers stay there and keep an eye on things, Avell said: “One is kind of a peacemaker and one is kind of a security guard.”

City’s Response

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.

The charges were unexpected, Avell said.

“It was humiliating. I didn’t anticipate it in any way,” he said.

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.

Church’s Legal Action

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.

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