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St. Pete Beach to church youth group: Thou Shalt Not Serve the Public

Written by Emily on August 21, 2020 Category: Firm News
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City’s punitive measures hinder Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church’s youth mission trips, violate principles of landmark federal law protecting religious land use

Media Contacts: Barbara Fornasiero, EAFocus Communications; barbara@eafocus.com; 248.260.8466; Dan Dalton; ddalton@daltontomich.com; 248.229.2329

St. Pete Beach, Fl.—August 21, 2020—Daniel Dalton, a religious property and land use attorney at Michigan-based law firm Dalton & Tomich,filed a preliminary injunction today against the City of St. Pete Beach, Florida on behalf of Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church, a member of the United Church of Christ denomination and located at 107 16thAvenue. The preliminary injunction was filed in response to the City’s efforts to stop the church’s youth group from evangelizing, praying, and seeking donation from members of the public who park on their lot.

Pass-A-Grille Church was formally established in St. Pete Beach in 1957, but its history extends 100 years. As part of its ministry, the church has always allowed community members to use the parking lot for free when church is not in session in order to access the public beach. In 2016, the church began accepting a free-will donation for non-patron parking, with the money collected used to fund the church’s youth ministry global mission trips. Church youth also hand out spiritual leaflets and share their faith with those interested in learning more. Collectively, the City finds these practices objectionable. A Court reviewed the City’s objection in 2016 and rejected it, citing that seeking donations by a church youth group to help pay for mission trips is protected activity and consistent with the Church’s religious beliefs to “welcome the stranger and show hospitality”.

Incensed by the Court’s decision, an elected City official conspired with a neighbor of the Church, resulting in the code enforcement officer taking punitive action and finding a code violation related to parking. A new parking citation was issued against the Church this year. Again, the Court initially found for the Church. The City then pressured the Magistrate to change the ruling, which now provides that parking on the Church lot can only occur for the “intended purpose” of the Church – as defined by the City. As a result, parking on the property to go to the beach or elsewhere is prohibited. Further, members of the community who attend community events on or around the beach cannot park in the lot, nor can utility trucks, contractors and visitors to neighboring homes who have previously done so without the Church receiving a citation or fine. Most heartbreaking to the Church, the youth group can no longer evangelize to patrons, pray with them, or seek donations for parking to help fund mission trips.

The City admitted at a recent hearing that it has not issued citations to any other establishments where people park and later leave the premises to go anywhere else.

Attorney Dan Dalton said the City’s fines, punitive actions, and singling out of Pass-A-Grille Church are reflective of a disturbing national trend of restricting religious freedom.

“St. Pete Beach is using an increasingly common tactic among cities and counties –cowering behind misinterpreted zoning codes – to limit or eliminate the religious freedom of its community members,” Dalton said. “The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) broadly protects Pass-A-Grille Church’s right to use its property within the parameters of its spiritual mission, which is clearly the case here.”

In speaking against the recent fine and growing pressure from St. Pete Beach, Pass-A-Grille Church Pastor Rev. Dr. Keith A. Haemmelmann expressed his frustration at attempts to restrict the church’s mission.

“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 the beach, or break bread with a neighbor,” Haemmelmann said.  “The church is not a commercial operation, no matter what codes a municipality adopts. Our calling as followers of Christ is to build the Kingdom of God on earth, not a fiefdom on the beach. Without the ability to reach a workable solution with the City to continue using our parking lot as we have for many years, the only viable option was to ask the court to confirm our rights under federal law.”

The preliminary injunction seeks permission for the church to immediately continue to allow the public to use its parking lot and to continue sharing religious messages and soliciting free-will charitable donations from those who park in its lot. Itwas filed at United States District Court, Tampa, Florida. A hearing will be scheduled by the Court on the pending motion.  Serving as local counsel for the plaintiff is attorney Lee. H. Rightmyer of Clearwater, Florida.

Dalton & Tomich is known nationally for its work with RLUIPA lawsuits. In July 2020, A federal court in Tallahassee, Florida entered a preliminary injunction against Wakulla County, Florida, protecting the religious exercise of local church City Walk – Urban Missionand its transitional housing program. 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/.

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