First Liberty Institute

Ohio pastor Chris Avell is fighting back after being charged with breaking municipal laws. Avell pastors Dad’s Place in Bryan, OH and opened his church 24/7 to the homeless in March 2023. Since then, 18 charges were filed against the pastor, including charges of violating the city’s ordinances, improper ventilation, and having unsafe exits. Lavell pled not guilty to the charges on January 11. His church has responded by filing a federal lawsuit against the city, alleging it violated Lavell’s religious rights. The lawsuit affirms, “No history or tradition justifies the city’s intrusion into the church’s inner sanctum to dictate which rooms may be used for religious purposes, how the church may go about accomplishing its religious mission, or at what hours of the day religious activities are permitted.”

According to the church, even after it had tried to address some of the violations, including installing a stove hood in its kitchen, officers continued to harass the church. “Nothing satisfies the city. And worse — they go on a smear campaign of innuendo and half-truths,” said the church’s lawyer, Jeremy Dys. “I truly believe that everyone who walks through the door of Dad’s Place walks out a better citizen,” said Lavell.

The church has been operating since 2018. The building is in a C-3 central business zoning district, which prohibits eating, sleeping, or washing on property grounds. The church has offered numerous services to the community, including free haircuts and a warming center. According to Lavell, after the church decided to stay open, they began receiving referrals from all over the city. “It was city police officers who would bring people by. The local hospital would call and bring people by. Other homeless shelters would call and bring people by,” he said. Anyone can stay at the church, unless for safety reasons, and two volunteers man the church during the hours when people are staying.

The church is currently seeking an injunction against the city and will remain open at least until March 4, when a judge will decide whether or not to grant the injunction. “Churches throughout history have been a shelter for anyone seeking a place of safety, and Dad’s Place is no exception,” Philip Williamson of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, a firm representing the church, said in a press release. “Ohio and federal law alike protect vital ministries like Dad’s Place, and we look forward to defending those rights.” The city has denied the church’s allegations of harassment. “We absolutely deny any allegation that the city has treated any religious institution inappropriately. The city has been and continues to be interested in any business, any church, any entity complying with local and state law,” said city attorney Marc Fishel. City officials also state that an increase in criminal activity and police calls to the church were the cause of the city citing the church for violations. The church says those allegations are being exaggerated. The church has also set up a GoFundMe for financial assistance.

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