Ohio church sues city after pastor charged with violations for housing homeless people

FILE-A man prays in a pew at a church. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

An Ohio church has filed a federal lawsuit after the pastor was charged with violating city ordinances by letting homeless people stay at the church. 

In 2023, Dad’s Place in Bryan, Ohio, started offering temporary housing for homeless people at the church.  

City officials ordered the church to stop providing housing to them based on zoning and safety concerns.

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Pastor Chris Avell declined to follow the city’s mandate and is facing 18 zoning code violations, which involve up to six months in prison, fines, or both, NPR reported. 

Dad’s Place filed the lawsuit on Jan. 22, stating that providing food and shelter to people in need is a religious activity and it’s being threatened by city officials related to zoning laws. 

The suit also calls for charges against the pastor to be dropped while requesting certainty that the city of Bryan won’t prevent anyone from staying at Dad’s Place. 

Last year, police started receiving calls about Dad’s Place related to worries about crime incidents at the church, according to a release from the city of Bryan

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An inspection by the city’s fire department uncovered 18 code violations under the Ohio fire code, including a gas leak, improper installation of laundry facilities and inadequate or unsafe exits in the church. 

City officials later learned Dad’s Place was letting people live in the building, but the church is in an area that doesn’t allow residential use on the first floor of a building. 

Avell knew of the city’s concerns but continued letting homeless people stay at the church without permission, and the city of Bryan pursued criminal charges against the pastor related to zoning violations, the release notes. 

Jeremy Dys, an attorney for Avell and the church, told the Associated Press that the church will remain open to people needing its religious services until at least March 4, when a judge will consider its request for an injunction against the city.

The church wants a federal judge to issue a restraining order or an injunction to keep the city and top officials from "enforcing or applying the city's ordinances to burden the plaintiff's religious exercise." It also seeks damages and attorneys' fees, the AP noted. 

Avell pleaded not guilty in court on Jan. 11 and said his church wants to welcome anyone, regardless of the time of day.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Washington, D.C.