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Court affirms a Church’s use of its parking lot for Ministry

Written by Noel Sterett on January 26, 2021 Category: Firm News, RLUIPA, RLUIPA Case Observations and Insights, RLUIPA Cases, Substantial Burden

Court order allows Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church to Continue Offering Free Parking to the Public.

A federal court in Tampa has entered a preliminary injunction against the City of St. Pete Beach, Florida, protecting a church’s right to keep its parking lot open to the public. Since 1957, Dalton & Tomich client Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church, has owned its property on 16th Avenue, beautifully situated just a block from one of the best beaches in the world. From the beginning, the Church has allowed the general public to use its parking lot, which has approximately 77 spaces. The free parking attracts people to the Church and affords the Church a unique opportunity to serve the community. The Church considers its parking lot to be a God-given resource that it can use to show “biblically-based hospitality.”

However, in 2016, the City began to clamp down on the church after the church’s youth group decided to evangelize, pray for, and seek donations for their mission trips from people parking in the lot. After a few neighbors complained, the City began citing the Church for allegedly violating City parking regulations. After responding to a number of the City’s citations, the Church ultimately had to file suit in August 2020 after the City fined the Church $1,000 for allowing members of the general public to park in the lot. The Church faced a fine of $500 every time anyone parked in its lot and was not engaged in what the City considered to be a “legitimate church purpose.”

“The City does not consider the many youth whose lives have been changed because of the donations that people freely give to support our mission endeavors. The church is not the church if ministry and discipleship are defined by entering a church building, then leaving, because the church will be penalized if you visit a friend, walk to the beach, or break bread with a neighbor,” said Rev. Dr. Keith Haemmelmann, Sr. Minister of Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church.

In its federal lawsuit, the Church asserted its rights under the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) and the First Amendment. The Church also sought an injunction to protect its right to use its parking lot in accordance with its sincerely held religious beliefs. In granting the Church the injunction, the Court found that the Church’s religious beliefs were sincerely held and that the Church is substantially likely to prevail on the merits of its RLUIPA claim.

While the Court did not rule on the Church’s First Amendment claim, the Court noted that “it is difficult to imagine how the City’s current policy of limiting the Church’s use of its parking lot to ‘legitimate church purpose’ could ever be workable in a practical sense, even putting aside First Amendment considerations.” The Court went on to ask  “would it be a ‘legitimate church purpose’ if members of the Church’s youth group began a meeting inside the Church but then chose to continue their meeting across the street at the beach? Would it be a ‘legitimate church purpose’ if the Church allowed a non-religious community group, such as the Rotary Club, to use its building? Would it be a ‘legitimate church purpose’ if the Church hosted a Boy Scout Troop that held their meetings at the Church? What if the Boy Scouts initially met at the Church, but then went across the street to the beach to work on a swimming merit badge? What if, instead of working on the swimming merit badge, the Scouts went over to the beach just to swim and have fun?”

This case is yet another reminder of how RLUIPA helps level the playing field for religious institutions and assemblies in the land use and zoning context.

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Dalton & Tomich is known nationally for its work with RLUIPA lawsuits. In July 2020, Dalton & Tomich also secured an injunction from a federal court in Tallahassee against Wakulla County, Florida, protecting the religious exercise of local church City Walk – Urban Mission and its transitional housing program.

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/.

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