Ohio Pastor Chris Avell of Dad’s Place has lodged a federal lawsuit against the city and its officials after facing 18 zoning violations for providing shelter to people experiencing homelessness. The dispute, now in the Northern District of Ohio, includes allegations of discrimination based on religion and claims of a targeted harassment campaign by city authorities against the church.
Avell’s predicament began earlier last year when he decided to keep Dad’s Place open 24/7 to cater to the city’s most vulnerable residents. The small city of Bryan, with a population of approximately 8,600, located 65 miles west of Toledo, saw the church facing zoning violations in December.
The city contended that Avell breached a local ordinance prohibiting residents from staying on the first floor of the property. Additionally, fire code violations were reported by the local fire chief. Avell, who pleaded not guilty during his arraignment on January 11, now asserts that the city’s actions amount to religious discrimination and a deliberate attempt to harass the church.
The city’s stance, however, maintains that Avell had ample time to rectify the ordinance violations but chose not to comply. The federal suit, filed on Monday, lists Bryan city officials, including Mayor Carrie Schlade, Police Department Captain Jamie Mendez, Planning and Zoning Administrator Andrew J. Waterson, and Fire Chief Doug Pool, as defendants.
Dad’s Place, operating in Bryan for the past five years, has been embroiled in controversy since deciding to open its doors around the clock in March. While Avell claims the church successfully housed and fed individuals in need without incident, the city countered this narrative.
Dad’s Place in Legal Turmoil Over City Allegations
A news release from the city alleged a surge in calls for service in May 2023, citing various incidents such as criminal mischief, trespassing, overdose, larceny, harassment, disturbing the peace, and sexual assault related to Dad’s Place.
The city’s awareness of the church’s housing activities in November triggered a cease-and-desist letter, giving Dad’s Place 10 days to comply with zoning regulations.The letter warned of criminal charges, including fines and jail time, if the church failed to adhere. The legal complaint indicates that Dad’s Place sought guidance from city officials on complying with zoning laws but received no satisfactory response.
The church’s refusal to evict those staying on the premises escalated the conflict, leading to criminal charges being filed against Avell in December.Ongoing inspections for fire code violations have been contentious, with the city allegedly changing requirements arbitrarily. The suit contends that the city has engaged in harassment tactics, including baseless visits, false accusations, and threats against the church’s landlord.
The lawsuit asserts that the city’s actions violate the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Avell’s legal team has also requested a temporary restraining order against the city. Despite the legal challenges, Pastor Avell remains resolute in his commitment to the church’s mission. In a recent sermon, he emphasized the importance of supporting the marginalized in the community.
Legal representatives, including Jeremy Dys from First Liberty, argue that the city should be assisting rather than prosecuting a church addressing homelessness during the winter. City Attorney Marc Fishel, defending the city’s position, cited significant safety concerns at Dad’s Place, emphasizing fire code violations and potential dangers to occupants.
The city maintained its commitment to supporting the homeless through compliant shelters while refuting accusations of neglect. As the legal proceedings unfold, the dispute raises broader questions about the balance between religious freedom, zoning regulations, and the provision of shelter for the homeless in small communities.