A city takes aim at a shelter
Bryan, Ohio, leaders harass a church that helps the homeless
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Throughout history, churches have been a refuge of safety, a place of shelter for those for whom life has chased to the margins. But the municipal leadership of Bryan, Ohio, doesn’t seem to remember.
Dad’s Place, a church founded by Pastor Chris Avell, opened its doors just off the historic town square in 2018. In early 2023, the church extended its care for those Jesus called, “the least of these” by operating 24/7. For those in need of temporary shelter, a place to get out of the extreme heat or cold, Dad’s Place’s doors would always be open.
By November 2023, Mayor Carrie Schlade began sending her agents to unlawfully harass the church and its members. The town’s fire chief discovered fire code violations that had been ignored by other chiefs for years. Pastor Chris dutifully worked to resolve those violations—replacing a plug here and the hood of the stove there. But the inspections kept coming as the chief found new “violations.”
At first the fire chief said that as long as the church left the building’s two exterior doors unlocked, it would pass inspection. No problem. Dad’s Place operates 24/7 and saw no need to lock its doors. Yet, weeks later, the same fire chief required the church to install “panic bars” on the doors within days of the inspection.
Mayor Schlade also sent in her police force. On one visit with the fire inspector, a police officer sat at the table with parishioners and began asking questions—the kind of questions law enforcement officers use to investigate suspicious characters. The interview came to an abrupt end when, after asking one unsuspecting individual sitting inside the church’s sanctuary how he arrived at Dad’s Place, the parishioner said the Bryan police officers brought him to Dad’s Place for shelter.
City officials have carefully crafted a reputation problem at Dad’s Place. Recently, the city alleged that there had been an uptick in police visits to Dad’s Place. The not-so-subtle innuendo being that Dad’s Place is a hotbed of criminal activity. Not true.
For example, Bryan police said they have responded to claims of harassment. That came after one woman had harassed a patron across the town square at the public library. The police caught up with her at Dad’s Place.
According to Bryan officials, the police have had to respond to trespass calls at Dad’s Place. That’s true, but only because the Bryan police brought individuals to the church who continued their unruly behavior. Pastor Avell called the police to return to remove the individuals they had just brought to the church.
On top of all of this, as Pastor Chris arrived at his church on Sunday, New Year’s Eve, to conduct worship services, the police served him with 18 criminal charges. Now, not only is Mayor Schlade the only mayor in America prosecuting a pastor for serving his community 24 hours a day, her prosecutor is threatening the church’s landlord with criminal charges if he does not evict the church!
This is the pattern of Mayor Schlade and the City of Bryan. Rather than embrace the efforts to care for the desperate and downtrodden, they act to vilify and bully this church into submission. The city seems intent upon ending Dad’s Place’s ministry to Bryan’s most vulnerable citizens or relocating it somewhere out of Mayor Schlade’s sight.
The U.S. Constitution and federal law stands in the way. Churches, like Dad’s Place, that have obtained the appropriate zoning permits to operate within a given area should be encouraged to continue their ministry free of harassment by city officials. Here, the repeated fire inspections, interrogations by the chief of police, and public smear campaign by the city violate the religious liberty of a church simply trying to do what the Bible commands: care for the widow, the orphan, and those society has pushed aside.
If Mayor Schlade truly cares for those whom Dad’s Place shelters from the cold, she will end her city’s campaign against Pastor Chris and begin encouraging the church’s efforts to help the city they call home.
First Liberty Institute, where the author is senior counsel, represents Pastor Avell.
Update: The City of Bryan, Ohio, has dropped charges against Pastor Avell for violating zoning rules.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.