Churches in Lake Worth, Florida, are being told they need to acquire permits in order to stay in business – and those that don’t are being subjected to what critics describe as Soviet-style code enforcement hounding.
Several churches in the South Florida region have reported to Fox News that they’ve been ordered to obtain business permits, or face fines and closures. But one in particular has come under an egregious city attack.
Fox News reported city officials sent out a code enforcement officer, decked in a hoodie, to spy on one Southern Baptist church that had gathered in a coffee house.
“Government employees are public servants and prohibited by the Constitution from inhibiting religious freedom,” said Mat Staver, the founder of Liberty Counsel, a religious liberty law firm, in an interview with Fox News. “That is a far cry from sneaking around and into a church and acting like KGB agents.”
The church that met in the coffee house actually owns the facility and has used it for the last three months as a meeting area.
The pastor, Mike Olive, said they met without trouble from the city until last month, when one commissioner, Andy Amoroso, reportedly began telling people in the community that the church was anti-gay, Fox News reported.
Shortly after, Amoroso warned against holding church services in the coffee shop.
It was only days later that a code enforcement officer, wearing a hoodie and carrying a concealed video camera, showed up for the Sunday gathering at the coffee shop.
He wrote in a code enforcement report, Fox News reported: “I walked back to the Coffee Bar and was able to visualize, in my opinion what appeared to be a ministry in progress … [and] people holding what appeared to be Bibles or religious books as one had a cross on it [and] what appeared to be a ministry in progress. I was approached by an unknown man with a cross around his neck.”
The pastor expressed shock. But the following Sunday, another city worker showed up at the coffee shop and gave the church a week to leave the building.
Their crime? Operating a church in a business rental property without a Lake Worth business license, Fox News reported.
Staver, however, said the city is violating the First Amendment, the Florida Constitution, the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the federal Religious Land Uses and Institutionalized Persons Act.
“Churches are not businesses and need not obtain such licenses,” Staver said.