Church sues after city turns 'hostile,' attacks food distribution ministry

March 23, 2024
by
World Net Daily

This story was originally published by the WND News Center.

A church in Arizona has sued the city of San Luis for its suddenly "hostile" attitude to a much-used food distribution ministry after a new mayor was elected.

The action, brought by First Liberty Institute and the law firm Snell and Wilmer, seeks a preliminary injunction in a filing in federal court in Arizona, "urging the court to stop the City of San Luis from blocking Gethsemani Baptist Church from distributing food to the poor.'

That ministry, nearly 25 years old, "fills a critical need" in the city "because no other food ministries exist within the city."

Over the years, "the city often celebrates or even participates in the church’s ministry efforts."

Then a new mayor came into office.

"Although the church had operated the food ministry in the same manner for approximately twenty-three years without complaint, the city suddenly turned hostile, bombarding the church with a series of accusations that the church’s use of its property and semi-trucks [to deliver food] violate the city’s zoning code, and threatening to take enforcement action if the church does not cease its operations."

The church explained it has been doing nothing illegal, and it promised to work through issues that could develop in the future, but city officials "refused to even discuss a solution that would allow the ministry to continue—even resorting to citing the church’s pastor for passing out food to just a few hungry people."

"It’s unconscionable that the city of San Luis won’t allow Gethsemani Baptist Church to continue its 25-year mission of providing food for the hungry, hurting people in the surrounding communities," explained First Liberty senior counsel Jeremy Dys.

"People who take action to care for the hungry should be encouraged and affirmed, not threatened and fined."

The church is located just blocks from the Mexico border and distributes hundreds of thousands of pounds of food and other household needs to the most vulnerable families in its area.

It uses semi-trucks to deliver food to its parking lot, from which it is handed out.

When a "new mayor" came to office, the city "sent letter after letter, moving the goalposts and not even allowing the church to benefit from laws already on the books. But even while the city has relentlessly worked to stop the church from parking its truck or storing and distributing food, the city turns a blind eye as commercial trucks and businesses regularly violate the same city codes in the same zoning district. Even after switching to smaller trucks in an attempt to comply with the city’s demands, the city continues to enforce its 'desist' order, preventing the church from ministering," the legal team explained.

The city's attacks have been so intense that recently when a "third-party truck accidentally parked in front of the church for just five minutes, the city cited the pastor again instead of the driver."

The complaint states that the city is "engaged in efforts of increasing severity to clamp down on the church, but throughout the same period, defendants have not enforced the same ordinances against similarly situated secular organizations that also use semi-trucks and store food in the same residential zone. Defendants are wielding city ordinances as a cudgel in a persistent lawfare campaign to stop the church's ministry activities."

That, the case charges, puts the city in violation of both federal and state law.

A key to the case appears to be the city's claim that the free food distribution is a "commercial" operation because it accepted "small donations" from those individuals wanting to support the ministry.

The city most recently called the church a "public nuisance" for giving away food and household items to residents who had needs.

And, the complaint charges, city officials informed the church that they intended to shut down the food distribution entirely.

At the same time the city allows, "Within blocks of the church, 18-wheeler semi-trucks and other commercial vehicles from FedEx, furniture stores, buses, food trucks, a tow truck company, and a local Head Start program are frequently seen parking, loading, and unloading on residential streets and residences—sometimes, for hours or days at a time."

The city stands accused of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and U.S. Constitution, and Arizona state law.

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