Florida city spies on churches, demands licenses
Florida city spies on churches, demands licenses
‘This Sunday is your last Sunday’
A Florida city’s code-enforcement division, which was subject in 2013 to a scathing audit for falsifying inspections, employing unqualified inspectors and failing to clean up nuisance properties, has now decided to go after churches.
The City of Lake Worth, in Palm Beach County, has taken the position all churches are required to obtain a “business license” to conduct worship services. It is using city employees to covertly attend services and acquire evidence, including video, “for future court presentation.”
City-code enforcement officer, Gerard A. Coscia – wearing a hoodie – was sent to the Common Ground Church on Feb. 9 to clandestinely film the worship service, reported the Examiner.
The following Sunday, Coscia returned to the church, which meets in the Coffee Grounds Coffee Bar, handed his business card to pastor Mike Olive and told him, “This Sunday is your last Sunday.”
Olive said he had never received a notice from the city for any violation of any local law, and only learned a non-compliance affidavit had been issued when a church employee checked the city website.
“I inspected the property and found the following violations: Business-rental property found without a current City of Lake Worth business license, specifically to operate as a church, or a house of worship,” Coscia wrote in his case narrative.
“I walked back to the Coffee Bar and was able to visualize … what appeared to be a ministry in progress,” including: “Someone speaking from a podium.” “A [sic] overhead TV or projection with scripture verse on it.” “Rows of people sitting in chairs on both sides like a gathering setting.” “People holding what appeared to be bibles or religious books as one had a cross on it.” The report stated that a video was captured on the “city phone” to be used “for future court presentation.”
But Common Grounds Coffee Bar does have a business license, Olive told the Lake Worth Tribune. He should know – he owns the business. And the site is not a church – it’s a coffee shop that leases space to a church every Sunday morning in the same manner other city restaurants and businesses rent their back rooms to neighborhood groups for their meetings. The Common Grounds site has also hosted open-mic nights and leased space for English classes for immigrants and to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous for meetings.
Olive also noted that while the church and business share similar names, they are not identical: Common Ground vs. Common Grounds.
“Our message has been amazingly stable, and it’s: Love God, love people,” he said. Many of the 120-130 who attend weekly are in recovery from substance abuse.
Olive said he had heard that City Commissioner Andy Amoroso, who owns a newsstand and gay-pornography shop in Lake Worth, was telling people Olive and his church were “anti-gay,” a charge Olive denied and attempted to address personally with Amoroso.
Olive said Amoroso told him, “You better not have a church there. That better not be a church,” referring to the coffee bar.
It was after that exchange the code-compliance officer was sent to observe the service – based on an “anonymous complaint,” according to William Waters, who oversees the Code-Compliance Department.
“All I know is they’re a coffee shop that’s holding church services, and they cannot hold church services,” Amoroso told the Tribune.
City officials have circled the wagons on the issue.
The city has threatened Common Ground’s landlord with daily fines up to $500 and foreclosure if the “violation” is not corrected by the landlord making the church get a “business license” to meet for worship.
Mark Woods, the manager of the city’s Code-Compliance Department, insists all houses of worship in the city must have a special business license.
“A duck is a duck,” City Manager Michael Bornstein told the Tribune. “If someone is holding religious services as a church, it’s a church.” He said the city was forced to take action “to protect the community.”
“So, all they have to do is go through the conditional land-use process to make sure the impacts have been assessed … if they’re a small church, it shouldn’t be a big deal.”
But it’s already proving to be a big deal for other churches.
“It’s brand new,” pastor Joan Abell of the First Presbyterian Church told the Tribune. “We’ve been there 99 years, and we’ve never had to have a license.”
A church official, told there would be no fee for the business license if the church produced paperwork showing it has been approved as a tax-exempt organization by the IRS, hit a brick wall when trying to comply. The city employee refused to accept the church’s documentation.
In a follow-up meeting with Commissioner Amoroso about the new license requirement, a church member was told, “Oh, it’s for your own good.”
Pastor Olive isn’t buying it, and he’s prepared to fight it in court with the help of Liberty Counsel, based in Orlando.
“It’s unconstitutional,” said Olive. “They can’t deny us a right to practice our religion in the city.”
“The city’s actions are completely baseless,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel.
“Lake Worth’s city ordinances specifically exempt churches and charitable organizations from needing a business license; state and federal law require local land use decisions to give equal treatment to secular and sacred assemblies; and the Free Exercise clause forbids government from prohibiting religious meetings. The coffee shop in which Common Ground Church meets has a business license, just as did the previous secular owner who hosted bands and similar gatherings.
“Government employees are public servants and prohibited by the Constitution from inhibiting religious freedom. That is a far cry from sneaking around and into a church and acting like KGB agents,” said Staver.