In violation of federal law, city sought to forbid Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church from allowing the public to park for free in its private lot near the beach
St. Pete Beach, Fla.—April 27, 2022—A federal court in Florida has ordered the City of St. Pete Beach to pay Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church more than $250,000 in attorney fees – which were needed to defend the church’s right to allow the public to park in its parking lot. The church, which is located at 107 16th Avenue in St. Pete Beach, filed suit against the city in August 2020 after the city barred the church from allowing the general public to park in its lot. The city had also sought to restrict the church’s youth group from evangelizing, praying with and seeking donations from those who parked in their lot for free. The church’s attorney, Noel W. Sterett of the national religious land use firm Dalton & Tomich, announced the court’s attorney fee award.
“This fee award is an example of the financial penalties local governments must pay when they violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects the church’s right to use its parking lot in accordance with its religious mission to show biblically-based hospitality,” Sterett said.
Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church has owned its current location since 1957, and its 70+ space parking lot is situated one block from the public beach. As part of its ministry to the community, the church has always allowed people to use the parking lot for free when church is not in session in order to access the beach. In 2016, the church began accepting free-will donations from those parking in the lot, with the money collected used to fund the church’s youth mission trips. Church youth also distributed spiritual leaflets, prayed with people, and shared their faith with those interested in learning more.
The city objected to how the church was using its parking lot and began issuing citations, as detailed in the press release originally announcing the lawsuit. In 2020, the city fined the church $1,000 for allowing general public parking in its lot, and the church faced a $500 fine every time it allowed an individual that was not there for “legitimate church purposes” to park in the lot.
In granting the church an injunction in 2021, the court asked, “…Would it be a ‘legitimate church purpose’ if members of the Church’s youth group began a meeting inside the Church but then chose to continue their meeting across the street at the beach? Would it be a ‘legitimate church purpose’ if the Church allowed a non-religious community group, such as the Rotary Club, to use its building? Would it be a ‘legitimate church purpose’ if the Church hosted a Boy Scout Troop that held their meetings at the Church? What if the Boy Scouts initially met at the Church, but then went across the street to the beach to work on a swimming merit badge? What if, instead of working on the swimming merit badge, the Scouts went over to the beach just to swim and have fun?”
With an injunction in place, the church was able to allow the public to continue to use its parking lot. While the case later settled, the city contested the church’s request for attorney fees.
“This case is yet another reminder of how RLUIPA helps level the playing field for religious institutions and assemblies in the land use and zoning context,” Sterett said.
Dalton & Tomich is nationally known for its work with RLUIPA lawsuits. In July 2020, a federal court in Tallahassee, Florida, entered a preliminary injunction against Wakulla County, Florida, protecting the religious exercise of local church City Walk – Urban Mission and its transitional housing program. In December 2019, the firm successfully represented Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in a lawsuit against the City of Lenexa, Kansas, which was prohibiting the church’s use of its property to operate a temporary homeless shelter. As part of the resolution, which allowed the temporary shelter to operate, the city also updated its zoning code to reflect the church’s right to do so.
About Dalton + Tomich
Established in 2010, Dalton + Tomich PLC is comprised of religious liberty, land use, denominational trust law, and business law attorneys. Learn more about our services at https://www.daltontomich.com/.