Lawsuit seeks to secure City Walk’s right under RLUIPA to continue ministry open to registered sex offenders
Detroit —- May 6, 2020—Noel Sterett, a religious liberty attorney and partner at the law firm Dalton & Tomich, filed a lawsuit today against Wakulla County, Florida on behalf of City Walk – Urban Mission. The lawsuit seeks to secure City Walk’s right to continue its transition home ministry, which some in the County oppose because it is open to registered sex offenders.
“Because City Walk sincerely believes that no man is beyond redemption, and that everyone can find forgiveness and a new life in Jesus, City Walk does not turn men away just because they have to register as sex offenders,” Sterett said. “The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) protects City Walk’s right to serve those God has called them to serve, free from government interference and discrimination.”
City Walk, based in Tallahassee, began operating its transition home in Wakulla County in 2013. The ministry provides shelter and a recovery program on the organization’s heavily wooded 3.4-acre property. Over the years, a few neighbors and county officials have harassed City Walk to abandon its ministry there. More recently, their efforts have shifted to shutting the ministry down through zoning enforcement.
Under the County’s zoning code, community residential home facilities are permitted at the property, but transition home ministries like City Walk are prohibited. The County recently served City Walk’s landlord with a notice of repeat violation for allowing City Walk’s ministry to continue at the property. Even if City Walk wanted to relocate its transition home, there is no other zoning district in the county where it would be allowed to do so because it serves three or more unrelated adults and does not qualify as a community residential home.
“The County is required by federal law to treat City Walk’s transition home on equal terms with a community residential home facility. If a community residential home facility can serve three or more unrelated adults at the property, City Walk can too. Nonreligious and religious institutions must be treated on equal terms under RLUIPA and the Constitution,” Sterett said.
Renee Miller, Pastor of City Walk – Urban Mission, expressed sadness that staying true to her ministry has led to this legal action.
“We’ve repeatedly pleaded with the County to allow us to continue peacefully serving those in need through our transition home ministry so they can fully transition back into society in a safe and healthy manner,” Miller said. “Our motto is that every saint has a past. Every sinner has a future. We want these men to have a future as contributing members of society. It’s deeply troubling that we must resort to a lawsuit to continue our mission.”
The case was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida. A hearing date has yet to be set.
Dalton & Tomich is known for its work with RLUIPA lawsuits. In December 2019, the firm successfully represented Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in a lawsuit against the City of Lenexa, Kansas, which was prohibiting the Church’s use of its property to operate a temporary homeless shelter. As part of the resolution, which allowed the temporary shelter to operate, the City also updated its zoning code to reflect the Church’s right to do so.
About Dalton + Tomich
Established in 2010, Dalton + Tomich PLC is comprised of religious liberty, land use, denominational trust law, and business law attorneys. Learn more about our services at https://www.daltontomich.com/.
The attorneys of Dalton & Tomich, PLC have the experience and the knowledge to work with you to develop a legal solution that helps accomplish your goals. Our collaborative approach has helped leaders like you grow businesses and banks, develop and expand churches, and build nonprofit organizations nationwide.
In my role as Administrative Bishop for the Church of God, quite often we are faced with issues that involve local governments and municipalities. Many of these issues that arise in dealing with entities are land use related. I have found Dalton & Tomich’s experience and expertise in this area to be a valuable resource and asset in every situation.
Never one time during a year-long litigation process did Dalton & Tomich demonstrate anything other than Christ-like professionalism. They managed the legal details, while we continued to do church. How they managed themselves, managed our case, and represented our church set the table for me and our church to be where we are today.
Dalton & Tomich’s expertise and experience helped us through a very difficult legal journey, ultimately achieving a favorable outcome. Their personal interest in helping us went “above and beyond” just the call of duty.