PITTSBURGH - The Borough of Brookville, PA, has agreed to pay the First Apostles' Doctrine Church and its lawyers $100,000 for shutting down the church's ministry to homeless people last year. After the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed suit against the borough last year, Brookville agreed to allow the church to resume housing homeless people in its parsonage.
"It is unfortunate that it had to come to this," said Reverend Jack Wisor, the church's pastor and founder of its outreach program to the homeless. "The monetary settlement will help the ministry help care for hundreds of people who come for help to the Just For Jesus Challenge Homeless Outreach."
The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit in November 2008 on behalf of Reverend Wisor, the church, and the "Just for Jesus Challenge Homeless Outreach," the church's ministry that Wisor founded in 2004 to help homeless people in this rural area, about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, by providing them shelter and bringing Jesus Christ into their lives. The suit alleged that the borough had violated the church's religious beliefs when it effectively shut down its homeless ministry by citing the church for zoning violations and refusing to allow the church to resume housing homeless people in the parsonage.
The lawsuit also claimed that the zoning inspector and several borough police officers violated the church's privacy rights by climbing into the church through a window after they had been refused permission to enter. The zoning inspector wanted to see if the church was violating the order against allowing people to stay overnight, which they learned during their forcible entry and warrantless inspection that the church was not allowing overnight guests.
A court hearing in the case was averted after negotiations between the church and the borough resulted in an agreement allowing the Brookville church to house up to eight guests and two staff. The agreement also required Brookville to dismiss the zoning-code-violation charges issued in August 2008, which were upheld by a local magistrate but that the church has appealed. Subsequently, in agreement was modified to lift any restriction on the number of guests the church could house in its parsonage.
"Local officials need to understand that feeding and sheltering the homeless is a form of religious liberty that receives the same constitutional protection as do more conventional church activities, like prayer services," said Witold Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania's Legal Director and one of the church's attorneys.
Nicholas Ranjan, a cooperating attorney on the case from the law firm K&L Gates, LL.P., said he was pleased with the outcome: "This was a terrific result to allow the ministry to continue doing its excellent work in caring for the homeless and less fortunate in the community."
More information about the case, including the original complaint, is available here: https://www.aclupa.org/our-work/legal/legaldocket/justforjesuschallengehomel/