Chris Avell, a pastor in Bryan, Ohio who opened his church to the city’s “vulnerable” residents to give them a place to stay amid freezing winter weather, is suing city officials over what he says is “discrimination” and “harassment” stemming from criminal charges he faced for providing housing for homeless people.
Avell filed a federal lawsuit on Monday against the city of Bryan, Mayor Carrie Schlade, Police Department Capt. Jamie Mendez, zoning official Andrew Waterson, and Fire Chief Doug Pool.
In court filings, Avell said he hosted an average of eight unhoused people per night at his church, Dad’s Place, “without incident” for several months before the city tried to stop him from keeping the facility open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
As Common Dreams reported last week, city officials told Avell he could no longer house people in the church because it lacked bedrooms and was zoned as a central business, in which Ohio prohibits residential use.
Authorities arrived at the church during a New Year’s Eve service and issued 18 zoning and fire code violations.
Despite Avell’s assertion that welcoming unhoused people into the church, which is located next to a homeless shelter that has experienced overcrowding, has not caused any disruptions in the community, Bryan city officials said in a new release that police saw an increase in reports of “inappropriate activity” at Dad’s Place in May 2023, two months after Avell first opened the church at all hours.
“It was city police officers who would bring people by,” Avell told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “The local hospital would call and bring people by. Other homeless shelters would call and bring people by.”
He told the outlet that two volunteers have acted as security guards since he began the overnight “Rest and Refresh in the Lord ministry,” and that the church has allowed anyone who needs shelter to stay overnight, only asking them to leave if “there is a biblically valid reason for doing so or if someone at the property poses a danger to himself or others.”
Avell’s lawsuit alleges that the city has moved the “goalposts” in its directives to him regarding safety and zoning codes. Officials ordered him to install a hood over the stove in the church’s kitchen, but after he complied, the city said the hood was not sufficient and required him to have the state inspect it.
“Nothing satisfies the city,” Jeremy Dys, Avell’s attorney, told the AP. “And worse—they go on a smear campaign of innuendo and half-truths.”
Avell accused the city of engaging in a “campaign to harass, intimidate, and shut down Dad’s Place” and said the order to stop housing homeless people was “directly contrary to its religious obligation.”
Represented by a conservative legal group called the First Liberty Institute, Avell alleged that the city has violated his rights under the First Amendment, the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
The court filings included a request for a restraining order against the city as well as damages and attorneys’ fees.
Republished from Common Dreams under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).