Dad’s Place, a church in Bryan, Ohio, filed a federal lawsuit and asked for a temporary restraining order after the city harassed the congregation and its pastor, trying to shut down its religious activities. Those endeavors include keeping the church doors open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide worship, rest, prayer, food and shelter for congregants, homeless people and any who need help.
But the city of Bryan sought to stop the church and charged Pastor Chris Avell with multiple criminal charges for violating the city’s zoning laws, as the Daily Citizen reported. Avell was arraigned on January 9, and First Liberty Institute, a non-profit religious freedom legal aid group, represented him in court.
First Liberty reported:
This week, the City of Bryan, OH arraigned Pastor Chris on criminal charges for operating a church 24/7. He pled ‘NOT GUILTY’ as any pastor should who is simply doing what churches throughout history have done: care for those who walk through their doors no matter the time of day [emphasis in original].
The law firms Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP and Spengler Nathanson PLL, along with First Liberty, then filed suit on Avell’s behalf, alleging that the city violated the church’s First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion.
According to the lawsuit:
Dad’s Place believes it has a religious obligation to operate its religious ministry 24 hours a day. In doing so, it seeks to provide a place for people to go who have nowhere else to go and no one to care for them.
The complaint also alleges that the city is violating the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which “prohibits governmental hostility to religion,” noting that the city has demonstrated animus in its “repeated efforts to harass and intimidate the Church.”
In addition, the suit alleges that the city of Bryan is violating the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment; the Ohio Constitution – by interfering with rights of conscience; the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act; and the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition against religious discrimination.
In a video from First Liberty Live, Pastor Avell explained how the church was motivated to stay open all hours:
God had put it on our heart before we even opened, before we even started Dad’s Place, and it was just the right time. We were getting more and more calls in the middle of the night for someone who had a need … and we just prayed about it and said, “Now’s the time – this is the time God has called us and he’s equipped us to be able to do this.”
And we opened up 24 hours in March 2023.
My Lord says, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And not as just rest as the world gives – but rest for your souls.
And so, we thought, “What a great thing that people can come in 24/7 and experience the true rest that only God can provide.”
The video shows poignant testimonies from people who have found help at Dad’s Place. One woman said she had been threatened with rape at a shelter in a different city, but said:
But here I’m not afraid. I can sleep right here, the door is unlocked, and I know that the brothers here won’t let anybody touch me.
A young couple described being cold and wet and homeless, sheltering in a broken down container. The husband said:
And we met with Pastor Chris and found, not only our spiritual leader, but God in the process. And it has been – I don’t know how to say this – it’s been a blessing as a family.
The wife teared up, adding:
You come in these doors, you come as you are, you’re accepted as you are. You’re welcome, you feel welcome. It’s a church, but it’s a family, and you immediately get that connection. …
I grew up in church my whole life, and I lost my walk with Jesus for a long time. And coming back here was the first time I was actually able to realize that I turned my back – Jesus didn’t turn his back on me.
Philip Williamson, of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, said of the case:
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.
In an email, First Liberty Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys added:
Instead of prosecuting a pastor in an effort to drive his congregation from her sight, the Mayor should be supporting a church trying to care for the marginalized, people going through some of the worst situations in their lives and in the dead of winter. The Constitution and the law demand nothing less.
The case is Dad’s Place v City of Bryan.
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Image Credit: First Liberty Institute