ACLU of Pennsylvania Defends Church Forced to Shut Down Its Ministry to Homeless

November 17, 2008 12:00 am

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Pittsburgh – The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed suit today to defend the right of First Apostles’ Doctrine Church, an evangelical Christian church in Brookville, Pennsylvania, to practice its religious beliefs through its outreach ministry to the homeless. The borough recently shut down the ministry by citing the church for zoning violations and voting unanimously to refuse the church’s request to resume housing homeless people in the parsonage.

“Jesus Christ clearly teaches in the Bible that we are to take care of the homeless and the poor, and we view that as the church’s responsibility,” said Reverend Jack L. Wisor, who founded the church in 2002 and serves as its minister. Reverend Wisor noted that, “We find it unfortunate that Brookville does not understand the need for our ministry and that we have been forced to seek relief from the courts.”

The “Just for Jesus Challenge Homeless Outreach” is a ministry of the First Apostles’ Doctrine Church. It was founded several years ago by Reverend Wisor, primarily to help the least fortunate in this rural area, about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, by providing them shelter and bringing Jesus Christ into their lives. The program has since 2004 operated two churches in Jefferson County, one in Brockway and the other in Brookville.

During that time both churches have opened their doors to shelter and serve countless homeless individuals, including disabled military veterans, teenagers forced from their homes, senior citizens who could not afford their personal-care homes, recently-released low-level offenders, people referred by county mental-health agencies, and people evicted from their homes and apartments. The guests were closely monitored by the church’s staff; no drugs or alcohol were permitted on site; and no serious problems have been reported at either location.

The borough has been aware of the program since 2004 and had never previously cited the church or attempted to interfere with its ministry. That abruptly changed in June of 2008, when, according to the lawsuit, Brookville’s zoning and code enforcement officer told church staff members that he was going to “make sure I get you people thrown out of here.” In July the code officer cited the church for operating a group home in violation of local zoning laws, and a district magistrate found the church guilty. An appeal of that ruling is pending.

On September 4, Brookville zoning officials and police officers forced their way into the church, without a warrant or Reverend Wisor’s consent, by climbing through a window. According to the lawsuit, during the illegal search the zoning officer confronted four homeless individuals, asking one, “Are you one of those Just for Jesus retards?” and saying to another, “I’m 60 years old, but I can still kick your ass.” He then ordered them to leave the church. They did not issue any citations as a result of the incident.

Earlier this month the ACLU-PA, on behalf of the church, asked Brookville Borough for permission to resume housing homeless people and church staff in the parsonage, but the borough board voted unanimously to deny the minister’s request. Out of fear of further retaliation by the borough, the church been forced to close the Brookville church as a sanctuary for the homeless.

“At a time when foreclosures in this country are approaching record levels, the demand for shelter in the area eclipses available facilities, and winter is upon us, it is unconscionable that Brookville would abuse its authority to shutter this vital religious ministry,” said Witold Walczak, Legal Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and one of the church’s lawyers.

The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania, charges that the Borough of Brookville and its officials violated the church’s religious-liberty rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits government entities from imposing land use regulations that substantially burden the exercise of religion, the First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and Pennsylvania’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

J. Nicholas Ranjan, a cooperating attorney from K&L Gates LLP, who is co-counseling the case with Walczak, said that, “It is difficult to conceive of a better example of a group of people trying to practice what they consider to be at the core of their faith – and yet getting stymied at every turn. The First Amendment was designed to protect exactly this type of religious exercise.”

The ACLU-PA today also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction asking a judge to immediately order Brookville to allow the church to resume housing homeless people in the Brookville parsonage. The lawsuit also seeks damages.

More information about this case, including a copy of the complaint, can be found at: www.aclupa.org/downloads/FirstApostlesComplaint.pdf.

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