The First Apostles Doctrine Church in Jefferson County takes very seriously the biblical admonition to minister to the poor, the homeless and the downtrodden.
The parsonage of the church has plenty of room -- five bedrooms, three baths -- so, since 2004, Pastor Jack L. Wisor has offered free, temporary shelter to disabled veterans, senior citizens, low-level offenders, evicted tenants and homeowners, and people referred by mental-health agencies. Typically, only a handful of guests were accommodated at a time.
A church performing the very sort of good work proposed in the good book should hardly be news. But verses in a book of another sort, the zoning code of Brookville, were used by officials in the tiny borough to try to stop its Just for Jesus Challenge Homeless Outreach ministry.
The ministry had proceeded unchallenged until July when zoning Officer Robert Receski issued a citation against the Rev. Wisor for allowing three homeless men to live in the building, which is attached to the 111-year-old church. The borough said the zoning code prohibits "group housing," and a district judge affirmed it. When the church asked to restart the service earlier this month, the borough said no.
Enter the American Civil Liberties Union, often unfairly derided as an enemy of religion. It filed a lawsuit and request for a temporary order arguing that a town cannot use its zoning regulations to prevent a church from engaging in its religious ministry. That's a violation of the church's rights under the Constitution and federal and state law. Further, the ACLU argued that the prohibition shouldn't be applied in this case because the group home classification refers to a "licensed care facility" such as a nursing home.
On the eve of a hearing scheduled for Wednesday, wisdom won the day. The borough's council agreed to allow the church to house as many as eight homeless people and two staff members in the parsonage. Brookville must dismiss the citation against Rev. Wisor, and the church and the borough will spend the next two months negotiating future uses for the building and any damages.
It's important that they work out the details to end this holy war.
Church sues for right to shelter homeless
Monday, November 17, 2008
The American Civil Liberties Union claims in a federal lawsuit filed this afternoon that a Jefferson County borough improperly enforced its zoning code, thereby denying a church its right to freely practice its religious ministry to help the homeless.
Filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of the First Apostles Doctrine Church, the suit claims Brookville Borough's refusal to permit the church to house homeless persons in its parsonage is discriminatory and violates the U.S. Constitution and federal and state law.
The lawsuit and the church's pastor, the Rev. Jack L. Wisor, contend the church should be allowed to provide shelter to "guests" in its parsonage because to do so is integral to its Just for Jesus Challenge Homeless Outreach ministry. The borough, located northeast of Pittsburgh, maintains such sheltering violates the municipality's zoning code.
The issue came to a head in the summer when the zoning officer for the borough of 4,600 residents cited the Rev. Wisor for violating the code by allowing three homeless men to live in the parsonage of the 111-year-old church. Following an Aug. 5 hearing, a district judge fined the pastor $500. The Rev. Wisor has appealed the district judge's ruling to Jefferson County Common Pleas Court. A hearing on that appeal is expected next month.
According to the suit filed today, the actions of the borough, its zoning officer, two police officers and another municipal employee violated the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment protection of the exercise of religion; the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure; the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000; and the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act.
The suit seeks a temporary restraining order, preliminary and permanent injunctions barring additional discrimination and violations; and payment of compensatory and punitive damages as well as attorneys' fees and costs.