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An Ohio church is suing a city over not being allowed to house homeless people

Dad's Place in Bryan, Ohio, has been allowing people to stay overnight at the church since last year.
First Liberty Institute
Dad's Place in Bryan, Ohio, has been allowing people to stay overnight at the church since last year.

A church in Ohio, whose pastor was criminally charged for allowing unhoused people to sleep at the church, has filed a federal lawsuit on the grounds of religious discrimination.

Dad's Place is located in Bryan, Ohio, about an hour outside of Toledo. Last year, the church began to offer temporary housing for people living on the street. The city ordered the church to stop, citing zoning and safety concerns. But the pastor, Chris Avell, refused.

Now, he faces 18 zoning code violations which are punishable by fines, up to six months in prison, or both.

In a suit filed Monday, the church argued that providing food and shelter to those in need is a religious activity and that has been jeopardized by the city and its top officials under the guise of zoning laws.

"Churches have throughout history in this country and in others, they have taken in anybody who walks through their doors. Churches simply have the right to to care for them," said Jeremy Dys, who is representing Avell. Dys is also an attorney with First Liberty Institute, a law firm focused on religious liberty cases.

The suit asks for the charges against Avell to be dropped as well as assurance that the city will not force out anyone staying at the church.

The mayor's office did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment.

The charges against Avell

The city of Bryan said police began to receive an influx of calls last spring regarding Dad's Place. Those calls were about concerns such as larceny, harassment and disturbing the peace.

That fall, the city learned that the church was allowing people to live inside the building. But the church is located in a district that prohibits residential use on the first floor of any building.

Avell was aware of this, the city argued, but he continued to house people at the church without the city's permission.

"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," the city wrote in a statement Friday.

The city added that it ultimately pursued criminal charges in the name of safety. Upon inspection last year, the church was found to have multiple fire code violations, including limited ventilation and inadequate exit areas. Most recently, the local fire department discovered a gas leak.

The city said Dad's Place has until Tuesday to bring the building up to code or it is prepared to take "appropriate action." It added that the local government was working with a nearby homeless shelter to find room for those who have been staying at Dad's Place.

Dys said the fire code violations existed for a long time simply because the building is old. He added that the church is working tirelessly to resolve the violations.

"Why is it that the city is currently upset about these code violations?" Dys said. "They're concerned about the safety because they want to cause an issue that would be a problem for the church, and create an opportunity for the city to drive this church out."

"Doing church things"

Dad's Place began to offer overnight stays last March, according to the suit. The church felt compelled to serve the homeless in a larger way because of the severe housing shortage in the city, as well as Matthew 25 in the Bible, which speaks on providing food, water and shelter to those in need.

The church does not intend to offer permanent housing, but rather serves as a temporary stay or emergency shelter. About eight people on average stay at the church as well as two church volunteers.

In November, the city ordered the church stop housing people within 10 days, but Dad's Place came to the conclusion that ending its 24/7 ministry would be "directly contrary to its religious obligation to care for 'the least of these' in its community," the suit said.

City officials became more hostile after that, the suit added — launching building inspections, criminally prosecuting the pastor and threatening to permanently shut down the church.

"It's really tragic that the city is not more complimentary of this church doing church things," Dys said. "Instead, they have used every means of their power to go after this church."

What's next

Earlier this month, Avell pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. His trial is set for Feb. 9.

Dys said Avell is worried about the future of his court case, his church and the people who rely on the building for shelter — especially with the winter weather.

"Where else are they to go if they don't go here?" Dys said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.