A Florida pastor claims his religious rights were violated after city officials investigated whether his church had the necessary permits on file.
Pastor Mike Olive operates the Common Ground Church and Coffee Bar in Lake Worth, which recently took over code enforcement from the fire department.
The city does not require churches or nonprofit organizations to pay a business license tax, but they are required to obtain a use and occupancy certificate – which officials use to ensure they don’t pose public safety hazards or break any local, state, or federal laws.
Olive became alarmed last month, when a code officer stopped by the church and recorded video evidence on his cell phone.
“We had one gentleman come in from the city wearing a hoodie, and he was hiding the camera in the pockets of his hoodie,” Olive said.
The code officer, Gerald Coscia, found the church may have been overcrowded and possibly lacked a sufficient emergency exit, and he said the building likely failed to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
He determined that Olive’s landlord, Mission Education International, had a valid business license for the coffee shop with an exemption for charitable organizations, but the church lacked a use and occupancy certificate.
City officials notified the landlord by letter and outlined what they needed from the church to issue the proper permit, but Olive claims the investigation violates “the separation of church and state.”
“I think it’s very important that people are not afraid to practice that faith — whatever that faith is,” Olive said.
The conservative Liberty Counsel sent a letter to the city on his behalf, demanding they stop requiring churches to pay for the business licenses.
The city manager, Mike Bornstein, said the dispute is apparently based on some misunderstanding, because churches are not obligated to pay those fees.
They are, however, required to submit to inspections to obtain the use and occupancy certificate to ensure they’re safe for public use.
Liberty Counsel claims in its news release that the city threatened the landlord with foreclosure and daily $500 fines, but the letter sent by officials makes no mention of those penalties.
In fact, the letter – which was not among the documents shared by Liberty Counsel — offers any assistance necessary to make sure the certificate would be issued.
“The application form is simple to complete as your organization has completed one prior for the coffee bar,” the letter reads. “We also can schedule the required inspection at your earliest convenience and apprise you of any improvements that may be required of the space or limitation on the number of occupants allowed.”
“Please be assured that the City has the best interests of the public in mind and wants to ensure there are no life safety issues with regard to the operations,” the letter adds.
Watch this news report posted online by WPEC-TV: