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Preacher Charged Again for Housing Homeless, Refuses to Back Down: ‘They Will Not Stop Until … Pastor Chris Is Sitting in a Jail Cell’

Share Tweet By Billy Hallowell Editor
May 8, 2024

The attorney for an Ohio pastor who reportedly faces criminal charges for housing the poor is accusing City of Bryan officials of “unlawful harassment” and waging “lawfare.”

Listen to them on the latest episode of Quick Start ?

Ryan Gardner, an attorney with First Liberty, a religious liberty law firm, told CBN News there’s a hearing May 13 seeking injunctive relief to stop the city’s actions against Dads Place and its pastor, Chris Avell.

“On April 24th, the fire chief, the assistant fire chief, and a police officer burst through the church’s doors [at] 5:30 a.m. for a surprise, unannounced fire inspection,” Gardner said. “And, upon completing that inspection, they immediately cited the church for new violations, which had never been discussed before.”

According to the attorney, the city now requires the church to have fire sprinklers installed, which he finds strange considering officials’ past visits to the building.

“The church has now been inspected six or seven times, and in each of the previous fire inspection reports, never once did they mention sprinklers,” Gardner said. “So, this is nothing more than an example of the city again moving the goalpost, and it’s clear that no matter what the church does, no matter what changes it makes, the city is always going to find something new to do.”

As CBN News recently reported, it appeared earlier this year that Avell and Dad’s Church were coming to a resolution with city officials over the house of worship’s decision to house the homeless, which officials said violated zoning laws.

But that changed last month after the parties again reached an impasse.

Attorneys for Avell filed a motion last month to show cause against Bryan, Ohio, on the basis officials purportedly failed to abide by an agreement requiring them to notify the court if they planned to take any such actions against the pastor.

The lawyers said the city served Avell “with new criminal charges for keeping his church open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” Gardner reiterated these details to CBN News, saying his team was trying to address the city’s concerns but that “good faith only ran one way.”

“While the church was doing what it said it would do, the city was feigning cooperation, while, in fact, doing nothing more than building a new case against the church,” he said.

Gardner said the city’s original opposition based on zoning laws was strange considering he alleges the “city’s own police, on their social media, would tell people to go to Dad’s Place if they needed a place to go.” He said authorities would even bring people in to get help from the church. Shifting Strategies?

The zoning charges were dropped earlier this year, when a resolution seemed in sight, but the latest developments represent what Gardner sees as a change in strategy on the part of city officials.

“The previous criminal charges … were 18 charges related to violating the city’s zoning code,” the attorney said. “They’ve moved the goalposts since then, and they’ve shifted their strategy, and now they’re going towards the fire code as a new stick to hit the church with.”

Gardner said criminal charges are again being waged against Avell for what officials claim is “unlawful change in use of the building.” Regardless, the preacher has not stopped housing the homeless as the legal battle continues, despite the city reportedly trying to impose a $1,000 per day fine.

“If you were to ask the pastor, Chris, he would say that he can’t do that,” Gardner said of halting his housing of the homeless. “His conscience would not allow it. His faith would not allow it.”

The attorney stressed the seriousness of the situation, noting that a month of noncompliance could mean $30,000 in fines. Beyond that, Avell allegedly faces jail time.

“That’s really what it seems like the city wants to do they will not stop until the church is shut down, those people are back on the streets, and Pastor Chris is sitting in a jail cell,” he said.

The May 13 hearing for injunctive relief is likely the next moment where a big development in the case could unfold. The City’s Side of the Story

Bryan Mayor Carrie Schlade released an April 26 statement, explaining the citation and claiming the church violated both city and state fire codes “including not having an automatic sprinkler system installed in an area where groups of people are regularly spending the night and sleeping, as required
under Ohio law.”

Schlade also said the city did not want to take this action, but cited dozens of calls to police to report alleged troubling activities and individuals frequenting Dad’s Place.

“We did not want to do this,” she said. “We must do this for the safety of the people using the church,
renters in space above the church, and the businesses adjacent to the building.”

Schlade continued, “This is not some bureaucratic dispute between Dad’s Place and the city. This is
a very dangerous situation for the people that Dad’s Place has invited in to stay overnight.”

See some of the alleged dangers detailed in the report: Photo: City of Bryan

Read the full statement. A Reversal

As stated, this latest row comes after it recently appeared a resolution was in sight.

Statehouse News Bureau reported in February Bryan officials had moved to ax criminal charges against Avell amid accusations he violated city zoning rules.

The outlet did note Bryan officials reserved the right to refile charges as detailed in a motion to dismiss. News of the potential dismissal had come after Avell and his church filed a federal lawsuit against the city. According to the most recent First Liberty press release, Avell and the church were engaged earlier this year in what they called good faith settlement discussions.

Hoping to resolve this case and in reliance on the citys representations to the Court that they would take no further enforcement actions against the church, the church agreed to cancel the preliminary injunction hearing originally scheduled before this Court on March 4, the statement read. Since that time, the church has addressed many of the alleged safety concerns raised by the city.

New criminal charges against Avell and the church have had his attorneys claiming city officials have no regard for the Constitution.

City officials demonstrated once again that they have no respect for the First Amendment or for the court, Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for First Liberty, said in a recent statement. The citys blatant hostility toward Dads Place and the court is repugnant. The Roots of the Story

As CBN News previously reported, the case against Avell originated late last year, with the pastor refusing to back down from officials demands to stop housing the homeless.

[Pastor Chris Avells] facing 18 criminal charges for violating the citys zoning laws, a news release from First Liberty read at the time. The city is going after him, because, earlier this year, Pastor Chris opened the church 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Hes seeking to serve homeless people.

The statement continued, In November 2023, the city sent a letter ordering the church to stop allowing overnight guests or face criminal prosecution. Then, on New Years Eve, police showed up at the church. They handed the pastor a packet of multiple charges and violations.

Some of those alleged violations are detailed here.

A city press release said the police reportedly received calls starting in May 2023 about inappropriate activity at Dads Place, with the statement noting some of the calls were for criminal mschief, trespassing, overdose, larceny, harassment, disturbing the peace and sexual assault.

In a past interview, Avell told CBN News why his church decided last year to open its doors around the clock a decision that came as homelessness in Bryan has reportedly increased in recent years.

Through some things God had done and what we were seeing, we decided that it was time to do it so that people can come in day or night and find true rest, he said. [And] come in and pray at any time of day.

Avell said, prior to the legal dispute, the church had been receiving calls from police in the middle of the night to ask if the house of worship would take in people facing domestic disputes and other issues.

This is one of the reasons Dads Place decided to expand its operations. However, authorities began taking issue with purported zoning violations last fall, with the Bryan City Zoning Commission reportedly expressing concern just months after that decision.

Since the church doesnt have bedrooms, the zoning commission said the house of worship could no longer house the homeless. Now, as the city noted, the issues are rooted in fire codes and sprinkler systems.

CBN News will continue to cover the story as it unfolds.

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