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Ohio pastor charged for housing the homeless

A city says the church’s 24/7 homeless outreach violates zoning restrictions


Pastor Chris Avell (left) and First Liberty Senior Counsel, Jeremy Dys First Liberty Institute

Ohio pastor charged for housing the homeless

An Ohio pastor who opened his church to the homeless has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges for violating city zoning laws.

“No one wants to be treated like a criminal, but the Word of God makes it clear that it is a blessing to face trials for the cause of Christ,” said Pastor Chris Avell, who founded the church Dad’s Place in Bryan, Ohio, in 2018. “The church’s mission, my mission as a pastor, is to make disciples of the rich and the poor and to provide for the least of these. Criminal charges don’t change that mission.”

In March 2023, Avell decided the church would help with overflow from the local homeless shelter next door. He said the church has helped about 100 homeless people in the small city in northwestern Ohio.

“The ministry of the church is not confined to Sunday morning at 11 a.m.,” Avell told me in an email. “We welcome anyone to experience the love and truth of Jesus, regardless of the time of day.”

By opening his doors for overnight accommodations, Avell violated city zoning laws. Dad’s Place is in a C-3 Central Business District, which prohibits residential usage, Police Chief Gregory Ruskey said in a December statement. Ruskey said the city informed Avell about the zoning violations and notified him of several fire code infractions.

In November, the city of Bryan sent a letter to Avell and Dad’s Place, ordering him to stop allowing overnight guests or face criminal prosecution, according to a First Liberty Institute news release. Avell continued to keep the doors open even after Bryan police came to Dad’s Place and served him a packet of charges on New Year’s Eve. Zoning violations can carry a fine of up to $1,000 per day under Bryan city ordinances.

Avell pleaded not guilty at the arraignment, and he will face an additional hearing in the next month or so, said Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute, the legal organization representing Avell.

Dys said that normally with zoning violations, the property owner and city can discuss the issue and find a resolution. Avell tried to talk to the city, Dys said, but “they have not been willing to engage in the conversation. They simply want him and his people out of that building.”

Avell considers the homeless outreach “as a serious part of his ministry and the church’s ministry and worship to care for everybody who needs care,” Dys said. “You could have a millionaire walk in at 2 in the morning or someone who just lost their house. It doesn’t matter, they are welcome to find temporary shelter at that church. And for the audacity to do so, he’s now been charged.”

The First Amendment and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act protects Avell’s right to use the church like this, Dys said. The act says that if a city government burdens the exercise of religion, then they must have done so with compelling justification and in the least restrictive way possible. The city of Bryan has done neither of these, Dys said.

Ruskey cited legal precedent in Ohio that holds that religious organizations cannot create homeless shelters within their property that violate local zoning codes.

For Dys, a case like Avell’s is unheard of. He said he has regularly seen cities get “cantankerous” with zoning regulations—like a Mississippi town enacting ordinances to keep churches from operating in the town square. But he has never seen zoning disputes lead to criminal charges against a pastor. He is concerned this case could lead to other cities prosecuting religious leaders or organizations over simple disagreements. “Most churches and most houses of worship don’t know what their rights actually are,” he said.

For now, Avell said he is relying on God for strength as he continues to face the charges.

“Others have faced much more and Christ is glorified through all of it,” Avell said. “I don’t know what the outcome of this situation is, but that does not alter my trust in God’s direction of my life and His church.”


Liz Lykins

Liz is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.

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