“Lake Worth’s city ordinances specifically exempt churches and charitable organizations from needing a business license; state and federal law require local land use decisions to give equal treatment to secular and sacred assemblies; and the Free Exercise clause forbids government from prohibiting religious meetings. The coffee shop in which Common Ground Church meets has a business license, just as did the previous secular owner who hosted bands and similar gatherings.
A Florida city’s code-enforcement division, which was subject in 2013 to a scathing audit for falsifying inspections, employing unqualified inspectors and failing to clean up nuisance properties, has now decided to go after churches.
The City of Lake Worth, in Palm Beach County, has taken the position all churches are required to obtain a “business license” to conduct worship services. It is using city employees to covertly attend services and acquire evidence, including video, “for future court presentation.”
City-code enforcement officer, Gerard A. Coscia – wearing a hoodie – was sent to the Common Ground Church on Feb. 9 to clandestinely film the worship service, reported the Examiner.
The following Sunday, Coscia returned to the church, which meets in the Coffee Grounds Coffee Bar, handed his business card to pastor Mike Olive and told him, “This Sunday is your last Sunday.”
Olive said he had never received a notice from the city for any violation of any local law, and only learned a non-compliance affidavit had been issued when a church employee checked the city website.
“I inspected the property and found the following violations: Business-rental property found without a current City of Lake Worth business license, specifically to operate as a church, or a house of worship,” Coscia wrote in his case narrative.
“I walked back to the Coffee Bar and was able to visualize … what appeared to be a ministry in progress,” including: “Someone speaking from a podium.” “A [sic] overhead TV or projection with scripture verse on it.” “Rows of people sitting in chairs on both sides like a gathering setting.” “People holding what appeared to be bibles or religious books as one had a cross on it.” The report stated that a video was captured on the “city phone” to be used “for future court presentation.”