Pastor Chris Avell (L) and his attorney Jeremy Dys

Pastor Chris Avell (L) and his attorney Jeremy Dys (R) speak to reporters outside Bryan Municipal Court in Bryan, Ohio, on January 11, 2023.

(Photo: First Liberty Institute)

Ohio Pastor Files Federal Lawsuit Over Charges for Helping Homeless

An attorney for Pastor Chris Avell said city officials have launched a "smear campaign of innuendo and half-truths" to get him to stop hosting homeless people in his church.

Chris Avell, a pastor in Bryan, Ohio who opened his church to the city's "vulnerable" residents to give them a place to stay amid freezing winter weather, is suing city officials over what he says is "discrimination" and "harassment" stemming from criminal charges he faced for providing housing for homeless people.

Avell filed a federal lawsuit on Monday against the city of Bryan, Mayor Carrie Schlade, Police Department Capt. Jamie Mendez, zoning official Andrew Waterson, and Fire Chief Doug Pool.

In court filings, Avell said he hosted an average of eight unhoused people per night at his church, Dad's Place, "without incident" for several months before the city tried to stop him from keeping the facility open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

As Common Dreamsreported last week, city officials told Avell he could no longer house people in the church because it lacked bedrooms and was zoned as a central business, in which Ohio prohibits residential use.

"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."

Authorities arrived at the church during a New Year's Eve service and issued 18 zoning and fire code violations.

Despite Avell's assertion that welcoming unhoused people into the church, which is located next to a homeless shelter that has experienced overcrowding, has not caused any disruptions in the community, Bryan city officials said in a new release that police saw an increase in reports of "inappropriate activity" at Dad's Place in May 2023, two months after Avell first opened the church at all hours.

"It was city police officers who would bring people by," Avell toldThe Associated Press on Tuesday. "The local hospital would call and bring people by. Other homeless shelters would call and bring people by."

He told the outlet that two volunteers have acted as security guards since he began the overnight "Rest and Refresh in the Lord ministry," and that the church has allowed anyone who needs shelter to stay overnight, only asking them to leave if "there is a biblically valid reason for doing so or if someone at the property poses a danger to himself or others."

Avell's lawsuit alleges that the city has moved the "goalposts" in its directives to him regarding safety and zoning codes. Officials ordered him to install a hood over the stove in the church's kitchen, but after he complied, the city said the hood was not sufficient and required him to have the state inspect it.

"Nothing satisfies the city,” Jeremy Dys, Avell's attorney, told the AP. "And worse—they go on a smear campaign of innuendo and half-truths."

Avell accused the city of engaging in a "campaign to harass, intimidate, and shut down Dad's Place" and said the order to stop housing homeless people was "directly contrary to its religious obligation."

Represented by a conservative legal group called the First Liberty Institute, Avell alleged that the city has violated his rights under the First Amendment, the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The court filings included a request for a restraining order against the city as well as damages and attorneys' fees.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.