City’s punitive measures restricting religious exercise of Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church likely violate federal law
Media Contacts: Barbara Fornasiero, EAFocus Communications; [email protected]; 248.260.8466; Dan Dalton; [email protected]; 248.229.2329
St. Pete Beach, Fla.—January 27, 2021—Daniel Dalton, a religious property and land use attorney with national law firm Dalton & Tomich, announced a win in obtaining a preliminary injunction against the City of St. Pete Beach, Florida on behalf of Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church. The church, which is located at 107 16th Avenue in St. Pete Beach is a member of the United Church of Christ denomination. It filed suit against the City in August 2020 after the City barred the church from allowing the general public to park in its lot. The City had also sought to restrict the church’s youth group from evangelizing, praying, and seeking donations from those who parked in their lot for free.
“This preliminary injunction validates our legal position from the start: the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) protects the Church’s right to use its parking lot in accordance with its religious mission to show biblically-based hospitality,” Dalton said.
Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church has owned its current location since 1957, and its over seventy space parking lot is situated just a block from the beach. As part of its ministry to the community, the church has always allowed people 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 free-will donations from those parking in the lot, with the money collected used to fund the Church’s youth ministry’s global mission trips. Church youth also distributed spiritual leaflets, prayed with people and shared their faith with those interested in learning more.
The City objected to how the church was using its parking lot and began issuing citations, as detailed in the press release originally announcing the lawsuit. In 2020, the City fined the Church $1,000 for allowing general public parking in its lot, and the Church faced a $500 fine every time it allowed an individual that was not there for “legitimate church purposes” to park in the lot.
Dalton & Tomich attorney Noel Sterett, who is also representing the church, said in granting the Church the injunction, the Court found that the Church’s beliefs were sincerely held, and that the Church is substantially likely to prevail on the merits of its RLUIPA claim.
“In its opinion, 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 for ‘legitimate Church purpose’ could ever be workable in a practical sense…,” Sterett said. “I’m confident the Church is right on the merits of its RLUIPA claim.”
In granting the injunction, the Court asked, “…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?”
With the preliminary injunction in place, the Church can immediately allow the public to use its parking lot and can continue sharing religious messages and soliciting free-will charitable donations from those who park in its lot. Sterett continued that the federal protections for religious institutions in the land use context are very strong.
“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,” Sterett said.
Dalton & Tomich is nationally known 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 Mission and 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/.