Culture, Science & Faith

Paying to Pray?

A Florida town seems to be telling churches they must pay a fee.

Arnold Ahlert · Mar. 9, 2015

A funny thing happened in the South Florida city of Lake Worth. It appears the local government has given churches the idea they must pay a fee to exercise their constitutionally protected right to worship as they please. In fact, in a move that smacks of totalitarianism, one particular church was singled out for “observation” by a hoodie-wearing code enforcement officer who compiled an official Case Narrative that reads like a bad detective novel.

In the city’s crosshairs is a Southern Baptist institution known as the Common Ground Church. The church owns and operates a coffee house in the downtown area, and for the last three months it has used it to hold weekly worship services. Previously the congregation rented space at other facilities in the area.

Common Ground Pastor Mike Olive spoke with Fox News’ Todd Starnes and told him problems began arising last month following an encounter with City Commissioner Andy Amoroso. “After we opened up the coffee bar and started doing services, I heard that he told people we were anti-gay,” Olive told Starnes. “So I went to his shop to ask him about that.” Despite Olive’s insistence that his church is all about loving God and loving people, and that his message to the gay community “is the same as it is to the straight community,” Amoroso remained unconvinced, warning the pastor that he’d “better not have a church down there.”

Amoroso may have a personal axe to grind. According to the Keep the Faith News website, Amoroso runs a newsstand and a gay-pornography business in Lake Worth. Shortly after Olive and Amoroso’s meeting, an “anonymous complaint” was lodged, precipitating the compliance officer’s visit last month.

That city-code enforcement officer is Gerard A. Coscia, who spent two Sundays in a row watching Common Ground Church hold services at the Common Ground Coffee House. The coffee house has a business license and rents space to the church. On Feb. 8, Coscia secretly filmed the service. The following Sunday he came back, handed Olive’s associate pastor his business card – and told him the church has one week to vacate the building.

As his report indicates, Coscia brought his inner author and CIA wannabe tendencies to the task, first noting that he “peered into 12. S J St., a store front with the name ‘Coffee Bar’ written on it and noticed nothing out of the ordinary for a coffee shop.” But the stakeout got interesting when 30-45 people arrived by cars, on bicycles and on foot and Coscia “started to hear music coming from inside the Coffee Bar.”

Soon after that, Coscia hit pay dirt. “I walked back to the Coffee Bar and was able to visualize, in my opinion what appeared to be a ministry in progress,” the report states. “There was the following going on inside the Coffee Bar: Someone speaking from a podium. A [sic] overhead TV or projection with scripture verse on it. Rows of people sitting in chairs on both sides like a gathering setting. People holding what appeared to be bibles or religious books as one had a cross on it.”

And like a good detective, Coscia compiled his “critical” evidence. “I was able to capture on my city phone a video which will be attached to this case file for future court presentation.”

Coscia further revealed he conducted a Google search, discovering that the church actually existed at the address he investigated, that Olive was a preacher, and that there was a calendar of service times. Coscia’s ultimate analysis? “I inspected the property and found the following violations: Business rental property found without a current City of Lake Worth Business license, specifically to operate as a church, or a house of Worship.” As for the aforementioned evidence, it will be “placed into the master case file for future Court presentation.”

Lake Worth community sustainability director William Waters insisted the city had nothing against the church and was merely responding to the aforementioned complaint.

“We had a complaint that a gathering of people was taking place there in the form of a church,” he said. “We investigated that and determined that, yes, there were people gathered there.” Waters further insisted the city “couldn’t give preferential treatment to churches versus other businesses.”

A church thus becomes a business, and Waters explained that every business in the community received letters regarding permits and fees. Joan Abell, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, confirmed that reality, producing a letter from the city warning, “[I]t shall be unlawful for any person or business, directly or indirectly, to engage in or conduct any business profession or occupation in the city, without first making an application for, and having obtained a city of Lake Worth business license.”

Abell was upset. “We’ve been there 99 years and we’ve never had to have a license,” she told the Lake Worth Tribune. “Where do you all of a sudden say the church has to have a license to gather and pray?”

First Baptist Church is another local church that has paid nearly $500 in inspection and use of occupancy fees. Local CBS affiliate Channel 12 asked Council member Christopher McVoy if that payment amounted to a tax. “I can’t tell you the exact answer on that. It’s not a business tax, but there will be a fee involved,” he replied. Other towns in the area charge churches fees, but those fees are for fire inspections.

After this story became national news, the city backtracked, denying claims it had threatened anyone. “This is entirely a big misunderstanding,” said Mayor Pam Triolo. “The city’s intention is not to penalize churches in any way, shape or form. No, there’s no fee to pray.”

The report by Coscia and the letter sent to Abell say otherwise.

Adding to the city’s woes is attorney Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, a law firm specializing in religious liberty. He sent a letter to City Manager Michael Bornstein, explaining that churches are not businesses and don’t need licenses to operate, that the city’s own laws exempt churches regardless, and that even the occupational licenses and taxes they are now attempting to collect “are an exclusive prerogative of the Florida legislature.” He asks the city to stop collecting business fees, refund those they have collected, and provide written assurance of both.

“Government employees are public servants and prohibited by the Constitution from inhibiting religious freedom,” he explains.

Nevertheless, the city insists the congregation still needs a use and occupancy certificate for “safety purposes” separate from the one for the coffee bar. And according to Liberty Counsel lawyer Richard Mast, the city warned Common Ground Church against “possible overcrowding” even though they haven’t provided the 2,500 sq. ft. coffee shop with a maximum occupancy number. They have also cautioned them about potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, despite the reality the coffee bar is already in compliance – and that the regulation doesn’t apply to churches.

The Patriot Post spoke with Olive, who remains optimistic about his future in the city despite local blogger Wes Blackman taking him to task for a “ridiculous non-story,” one “giving our little City a black eye on the national stage.”

“We’re not mad at the city,” Olive explained. “I live here. I work here. We love the city and when people ask me why we’re giving the city a black eye, I tell them were not. The city has a black eye and we want be the ‘ice’ that brings healing to Lake Worth.”

Such healing may be temporary. Oliver also revealed that “police have told us we can’t hand out Gospel tracts because it violates Lake Worth’s panhandling law, which is one of the most aggressive in Palm Beach County.” Handing out what Christians believe is the word of God constitutes panhandling? You’ve got another “misunderstanding” to address, Mayor Triolo.

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