Today, a federal court in Tallahassee, Fla., entered a final consent decree allowing Dalton & Tomich client, City Walk-Urban Mission, to expand its transition home ministry in Wakulla County. The order was entered pursuant to a settlement the County and City Walk had agreed to earlier this month. In July, the court ruled against Wakulla County for unlawfully restricting the ability of the church to operate a religious transition home for three to six adults. Rather than fight the court’s order, the County agreed to settle the case for $160,000 and additional provisions relating to the expansion of the ministry. The settlement concludes a dispute that dates back to 2015, when the County first tried to shut the housing ministry down.
City Walk operates according to its motto, “Every saint has a past. Every sinner has a future.” Some opposed City Walk’s housing ministry because it does not exclude registered sex offenders. When the County tried to shut the home down again earlier this year, City Walk’s pastor, Renee Miller, asked the County where else they could go. When Wakulla County Planning Director Somer Pell told them there was nowhere else they could locate, City Walk filed suit, asserting its rights under a federal law called the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), as well as the United States Constitution.
In addition to the $160,000 Wakulla County agreed to pay to settle City Walk’s claims to attorneys’ fees, costs, and damages, the County also agreed to allow City Walk to establish up to three other transition homes in the County.
“We praise God for this resolution and are so thankful for our attorney Noel Sterett whose prayer and perseverance have meant so much to our small ministry. We wish it hadn’t taken a lawsuit to get the County to allow us to serve those in need. The tens of thousands of dollars that have been spent fighting for our ministry would’ve been better spent addressing the many needs in our community,” Pastor Miller said.
No religious group should have to go through what City Walk went through to secure its right to serve and care for those in need. Religious groups need to be aware that federal law provides them substantial protections from government attempts to restrict their religious activities.
This case is yet another reminder of how RLUIPA helps level the playing field for religious assemblies and institutions in the land use and zoning context.
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