City must cover legal costs of church that had to defend public use of its parking lot
A Florida church has won a final legal battle over the public use of its parking lot.
A federal court on April 27 ordered the city of St. Pete Beach to pay Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church more than $250,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs. The United Church of Christ congregation incurred the expenses in defending against complaints from the city.
The city objected to Pass-A-Grille’s practice of allowing users of a popular nearby beach to park cars on its lot. Parking is free, but the church accepts donations to support mission trips that are part of its youth program. The church’s young people are often there to greet the public, describe their mission work, and, if requested, even pray with the guests.
Starting in 2016, the St. Pete Beach city government — prompted by unhappy neighbors — tried to stop it all. In 2020, the city said it would fine the church up to $500 each time it allowed someone to park in its lot who was not there exclusively for “legitimate church purposes.”
In August 2020, the church asked a federal court to intervene. January 2021, a federal judge in Tampa did just that. After hearing arguments from both sides, Judge Tom Barber — in the Tampa Division of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida — granted a preliminary injunction. This allowed the church to continue its public-parking practice while awaiting trial.
He said the church “presented a substantial likelihood of prevailing on the merits” of its case for religious freedom. The church cited a 2000 law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. It shields houses of worship from discrimination in zoning.
A trial was set for January 2022, but the case never got that far. The two sides settled in August 2021. A consent decree detailing the settlement said the parties agreed, among other things, that:
- “The Church may continue to allow the general public to park in its off-street parking and to solicit voluntary charitable donations,” and
- “The City will not enforce its Land Development Code … to prevent, or attempt to prevent, the Church from allowing the general public to park in its off-street parking.”
‘Stewardship and hospitality’
The decree left open the question of “reasonable attorneys’ fees.” Barber resolved that in his April 27 order. He awarded Pass-A-Grille “attorney’s fees in the amount of $254,018.68 and costs in the amount of $4,347.70.”
In an 18-page analysis of the case in 2021, Barber said the disagreement between the church and the city boiled down to one central point: “the sincerity of the church’s religious beliefs concerning its use of its parking lot.”
He noted that Pass-A-Grille’s senior minister, the Rev. Keith Haemmelmann, had testified that “permitting open and free parking to the public on its lot is guided by two of the church’s core values — stewardship and hospitality.”
Now the church can continue to welcome motorists, unhindered, as it prepares for 2022 youth work camps in Ireland and Colorado. While the 2021 injunction allowed the free-parking program to continue, the unresolved nature of the case was always on the church’s mind, said Jeanne Hammelmann, Pass-A-Grille’s associate minister for youth and young adults. The 2021 settlement, and, finally, the decision on attorney’s fees have lifted that burden, she said.
“Now that the case is settled, we can fully resume without the constant fear of the city and/or neighbors watching our every move and having it endanger the case,” she said. “As you can imagine, we are thrilled to have won the case. It clearly continues to help other churches who may encounter similar situations to know that they have the right to use their property as they determine, not the city.”
That larger significance is important, said the church’s attorney, Noel Sterett of the firm Dalton & Tomich. He called the case an example of how RLUIPA “helps level the playing field for religious institutions and assemblies in the land use and zoning context.” He said the award of legal fees is “an example of the financial penalties local governments must pay when they violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.”
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