ORLANDO, Fla. (Christina Examiner) -- Rampant threats of fines and foreclosures against Palm Beach County, Florida, churches could soon result in legal action if officials hold steadfast in their campaign to harass churches into filing for business licenses.
After numerous area congregations were cited with violations, some without notice, the Orlando-based non-profit Liberty Counsel, sent a letter to the city of Lake Worth asking officials to cease recent efforts to force Lake Worth churches obtain operating licenses. The city has until close of business tomorrow to reverse their actions.
"We are continuing to gather evidence," Richard Mast, a spokesman for the Liberty Counsel told Christian Examiner. "If they don't provide the relief that we requested and they harass the church which -- we are deeply concerned about -- we are not afraid to take further measures to prevent irreparable harm to the constitutional rights of the church."
Churches that have been targeted include the longstanding First Presbyterian Church of Lake Worth that has operated within the community for nearly a century. According to World Net Daily, when FPC attempted to comply with the new business license requirements, city employees refused the documentation the church presented showing that it is an IRS-approved tax-exempt organization.
The more newly established Common Ground Church meets in the Common Grounds Coffee Bar. The owner of the coffee shop, Mike Olive, also is pastor of the church and was issued a non-compliance affidavit requiring the church to have its own business license despite the existing license for the coffee establishment.
"The city is taking the position that this is a religious assembly that meets for worship and singing and for fellowship that that converts it into something requiring its own business license over above and beyond what the coffee shop has itself," explained Mast.
"The church is made up of a body of believers. They're entitled to get together and to worship and fellowship on the same basis as other secular groups of people who may be entitled to meet in a restaurant or coffee bar."
Now Olive faces fines up to $500 per day and possible closure for the "violation" if he fails to seek the business license.
According to a Liberty Counsel letter, Olive believes his church is being targeted, citing a threatening comment City Commissioner Andy Amoroso made in December. Olive claims Amoroso told him "you better not have a church down there."
The letter addressed to City Manager Michael Bornstein states, "The City has inexplicably targeted CG Church for investigation, despite the fact that CG Church has made no secret of its weekly worship," a peaceful gathering which is protected by the First Amendment. Instead the city sent William Waters, director of the Code-Compliance Department, who issued a concerning report.
"Where this comes into religious discrimination is the report of the city code enforcement individual," said Mast. He saw "'what appeared to be a ministry in progress, and cites all of these things as if they're somehow nefarious and they're just normal church worship activities."
Reports of aggressive code enforcement for the purpose of generating fee income for the city have circulated for some time. An audit last year revealed a host of grievances including falsified inspection results and unqualified employees on the job.
Mast said Liberty Counsel also discovered differences among the fees and taxes various churches paid and questioned the computation method.
Mast stated that he and his clients hoped the Lake Worth would do the right thing and reverse their decision, but are prepared to litigate the issue if they take enforcement action against Common Ground Church or the against the landlord indirectly.