After sending a city spy to report on church activities in order to collect incriminating “evidence,” the City of Lake Worth in Florida is now demanding that church property owners obtain “business licenses” to avoid foreclosures, hundreds of dollars in daily fines and ultimately shutting services down.
After being informed about the local government’s “KGB-type harassment,” Liberty Counsel issued a letter to the City of Lake Worth. Attorneys with the Christian nonprofit legal organization are demanding that it retract what they are calling a baseless order requiring all churches in the area — some of which have been pillars of light in their communities for nearly a century — to close their doors.
Specifically, Liberty Counsel is urging the City to cease its harassment of the recently founded Common Ground Church. The church’s landlord was threatened by the city with foreclosure and daily fines of up to $500 if a “business license” is not purchased, arguing that the church is in “violation” and will quickly be stopped from holding worship services if the “problem” is not corrected.
Besides demanding that the City of Lake Worth cease and desist implementing its plan to have local churches obtain business licenses, Liberty Counsel is also urging it to refund the business license taxes that Common Grounds has already paid. The Christian legal group with offices in Orlando, Florida, is also demanding that the City retract its threat to the church and its landlord — of shutting all operations down for noncompliance.
In addition to the threatened fines and licensing demands, the City has allegedly been taking park in a “KGB-type” investigation of Common Ground Church, sending one of its employees to spy on the church and meticulously record its worship services in hopes or documenting and video recording violations.
Liberty Counsel obtained a statement recorded and prepared by the city “spy,” which attorneys say “reads like a report from behind the Iron Curtain describing illicit activity.” Here is how it reads:
“I walked back to the Coffee Bar and was able to visualize … what appeared to be a ministry in progress,” the City spy wrote in the report, which then listed off various observations. “[This included:] Someone speaking from a podium … A (sic) overhead TV or projection with [S]cripture verse on it … Rows of people sitting in chairs on both sides like a gathering setting … People holding what appeared to be [B]ibles or religious books, as one had a cross on it.”
In the report, it is noted that the church activities were captured on video on the “city phone” and that the recordings would later be used “for future court presentation.”
Out of the blue … not out of the book
According to Liberty Counsel, the City’s actions taken against the church are unjustified and not grounded in local law.
The City’s actions are completely baseless,” Liberty Counsel states. “Lake Worth’s city ordinances specifically exempt churches and charitable organizations from needing a business license.”
The Florida legal group’s attorneys also insist that laws within the Sunshine State and those enforced throughout the country preclude it from stopping or interfering with churches’ services.
“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,” Liberty Counsel attorneys assert. “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.”
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver argues that the City has indeed violated the church’s freedom to exercise religion, guaranteed and protected under the United States Constitution.
“Government employees are public servants and prohibited by the Constitution from inhibiting religious freedom,” Staver contends. “That is a far cry from sneaking around and into a church and acting like KGB agents.”
Written by Michael F. Haverluck