A small-town American pastor faces multiple charges after caring for homeless people at his church. Ohio Pastor Chris Avell is accused of 18 zoning and fire code violations in the city of Bryan, which has a population of around 9,000.
He allowed his non-denominational church called Dad’s Place to stay open 24/7 to take in homeless people when the adjacent official homeless shelter named The Sanctuary was full. The Christian Post reports his church gave temporary refuge to around 100 people in often freezing weather.
Mike Kelly who’s a former pastor at Dad’s Place and the executive director of The Sanctuary disagrees with the charging of Pastor Avell. “He is doing ministry like no one else around here is willing to do it. It isn’t right to Chris, it isn’t right to those people and it isn’t right to my city,” he asserted because The Sanctuary is almost always at capacity and affordable housing is hard to find.
Pastor Avell is represented by Christian legal nonprofit First Liberty Institute which has lodged a counter-lawsuit against the city, arguing that “keeping the church’s doors open is a part of its ministry and Pastor Avell’s right to religious freedom.”
“The city’s antagonism is beyond the pale. Officials have refused multiple times to meet with Pastor Chris and us to resolve the issue. They also released a statement with some very disparaging remarks about the church. They painted Pastor Chris as a criminal and said that ‘inappropriate activity’ was happening at the church,” First Liberty claimed.
“The only ones engaging in ‘inappropriate activity’ here are the city officials determined to harass and intimidate a church for serving its community. They need to do what’s right, dismiss the criminal charges and protect the church’s ability to fulfil its divinely-inspired mission,” it declared.
“From the very beginning of this case, we’ve made it clear that Pastor Chris is fully within his rights to keep the church open as long as he wants. He’s simply doing what churches throughout history have done: care for those who walk through their doors. As our lawsuit explains, the city is trampling on the US Constitution and violating multiple federal and state laws that protect houses of worship,” First Liberty stated.
Under zoning regulations it is illegal to allow people to sleep, eat or wash on church premises, so city county officials charged Pastor Avell. They defended their actions in a 42-page media release which read: “Pastor Avell never requested, nor was approval given, to use Dad’s Place as a residence or homeless shelter. The city enforces its zoning code equally to all. A church does not have any special rights under the zoning code and the city expects Pastor Avell and Dad’s Place to follow the law.”
First Liberty attorney Jeremy Dys told The Christian Post: “It’s a tragedy that they [city officials] would think any of that would be true.” He maintained that many of the complaints against Dad’s Place related to incidents that did not take place on the church property.
“Unfortunately, the innuendo and the public smear campaign led by Mayor Schlade and the city of Bryan, Ohio, is just further reinforcement that this town is doing everything they possibly can to discriminate against Pastor Avell and his congregants. They want that church driven from view and out of the mayor’s sight,” Mr. Dys added, claiming that it appears local authorities are “trying to create problems where none exists in an effort to smear this church from caring for the most marginalised and vulnerable in their community.”
The council “absolutely denied” any allegation that it has treated any religious institution inappropriately. Pastor Avell has vowed to keep his church doors open until a court rules otherwise.
First Liberty writes: “Have we really reached a point in America where it’s considered a crime for the church to be the church? Many of our public leaders seem to forget why religious freedom is so important. The whole point of religious liberty and the First Amendment is to protect houses of worship from government excess. And when houses of worship are free to live out their faith, they’re also free to be a force for good. They can positively impact everyone.”
“As Pastor Chris says, singing or praising on Sunday mornings is one part of worship. But it goes beyond that. Being the church means serving others. It’s what Scripture teaches. It’s the calling of Dad’s Place Church and countless congregations in our country: to care for widows and orphans, feed the hungry, tend to the sick and be a refuge for those who have no home. It’s a bold and demanding calling. It’s an around-the-clock calling. And it’s why Pastor Chris made a priority of keeping his church doors open all day and all night,” the Christian legal advocate proclaimed.
Photo: First Liberty Institute