LAKE WORTH, Fla. — A city in Florida is under scrutiny after it allegedly mandated area churches to obtain business licenses—an allegation that it now denies despite a paper trail to the contrary.
Liberty Counsel, which has offices in Florida, Virginia and Washington, D.C., recently sent a letter to Lake Worth officials on behalf of a number of churches who received letters stating that they were in violation of city code for not obtaining a business license for their operation.
It provided a sample letter from the city’s Business License Division to First Presbyterian Church of Lake Worth, which read in part, “After reviewing our records, it has come to our attention that the business located at the address above is currently operating without a license or the renewal for 2015 has not been received.” (Click here to read the city’s letter to First Presbyterian Church, the last page of the link.)
Liberty Counsel also reports that another church—called Common Grounds Church—which meets regularly in a coffee house, was paid a covert visit by code inspector Gerard Coscia, who submitted a written report about the activities that he saw taking place at the location.
“I walked back to the Coffee Bar and was able to visualize, in my opinion, what appeared to be a ministry in progress,” he wrote. “There was the following going on inside the Coffee Bar: Someone speaking from a podium. A 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.”
Coscia said that he talked to one man who appeared to be the minister, and asked if the location “was a church gathering or a coffee shop and he replied, both…” He also noted that he took pictures and video of what occurred inside to hold for “future court presentation.”
“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,” the report read. (Click here to read the report in its entirety.)
But in a letter to the City of Fort Worth dated Feb. 23, Liberty Counsel notes that the Common Ground Coffee Bar has a business license for its operations, and allows the church to meet at the facility.
“The Coffee Bar has all appropriate business and occupational licenses, and operates in the same premises occupied by a previous, wholly secular, coffee bar,” wrote attorney Richard Mast, Jr. “CG Church uses space at the Coffee Bar on Sunday mornings, Tuesday evening, and at other times during the week.”
The city had allegedly likewise submitted a letter to the church, requiring them to obtain a license by March 2 or face a hearing before a special magistrate, as well as fines between $250-$500 per day if it did not obtain a use and occupancy certificate and a business license.
“Government employees are public servants and prohibited by the Constitution from inhibiting religious freedom. That is a far cry from sneaking around and into a church and acting like KGB agents,” Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel, said in a press release late last month expressing dismay about the matter.
But now City Manager Michael Bornstein claims that there was some sort of “misunderstanding” about the matter. A second letter dated March 2, written by William Waters, the Director for Department of Community Sustainability, asserts that the city had rather received complaints about proper accommodations for church services at the location, which then spawned an investigation. (Click here to read the letter in its entirety.)
Waters states that the church had not obtained a use and occupancy certificate—which is part of a business license and is required for churches, non-profits and for-profits alike (with churches being exempt from the business taxation element of the law)—and would mandate that the location be inspected for safety issues pertaining to church use. He asserted that the location might not have sufficient ingress and egress, and might face an overcrowding issue.
“We will gladly work with your organization to obtain the expansion of the existing U&O for the assembly use as an accessory to the Common Ground Coffee Bar,” the letter reads.
The city is now also contending that it does not require business licenses for churches per se outside of the use and occupancy requirement, and denies that it had imposed such a mandate on First Presbyterian Church of Lake Worth, in spite of the letter from city officials posted online by Liberty Counsel.