Community Inn's lawsuit challenges city's definition of church

jkegley@herald-leader.comJuly 9, 2012 

Emmanuel Apostolic Church and the Catholic Action Center have filed a lawsuit saying the Urban County Government violated their constitutional rights to freedom of religion by revoking a permit for The Community Inn, a homeless shelter on Winchester Road.

The Inn's organizers are seeking a court order requiring the city to reinstate a conditional-use permit for the shelter, an outreach ministry of Emmanuel Apostolic Church of Zion, according to the lawsuit.

"We are a totally non-government-funded, faith-based organization that has followed all of the rules and permitting that were required," said Ginny Ramsey, co-director of the Catholic Action Center. "And we were very open (with the city) that The Community Inn is going to be part of Emmanuel Apostolic Church."

The lawsuit is the latest step in a dispute between the Inn's supporters, who say the Inn is protected under freedom of religion and fair-housing laws, and city officials, who sought to relocate the shelter in the wake of reports from neighbors about homeless people loitering, panhandling and urinating in public.

Some neighbors said they were unaware of the shelter until days before it opened in April 2011.

Disputes surrounding The Community Inn are among the topics to be discussed by Mayor Jim Gray's commission on homelessness, which was created earlier this month. The commission was established as a result of several recent reports related to homelessness, including shelter overcrowding, the impact of downtown feeding programs on Phoenix Park and concerns raised about Messner's Home, a boarding house on Hill Rise Court.

The Community Inn is suing the Lexington Board of Adjustment and board members, and the Department of Planning, Preservation and Development in the Division of Planning. Lexington attorney Ed Dove, who is representing the church and the Catholic Action Center, could not be reached Monday for comment.

"We really did not want it to have to be a court battle," Ramsey said. "The bottom line is we're going to take care of our people. These people need a place to stay."

The lawsuit, which was filed Friday evening in Fayette Circuit Court, stems from the board's decision last month to revoke a conditional-use permit granted to Emmanuel Apostolic Church for The Community Inn, 824 Winchester Road. The board gave organizers six months to find a new location.

The property is zoned B-4 for wholesale and warehouse use, but churches are allowed to occupy such spaces under a conditional-use clause. Certificates of occupancy filed with the city refer to the project as a "church remodeling."

"In this case, a real controversy exists because the parties disagree regarding the proper legal interpretation of LFUCG's definition of 'church,'" the lawsuit said.

City officials and members of the Board of Adjustment have said that during the permitting process, they were not fully made aware of the Inn's function as a shelter. They have said they thought the Community Inn was going to function as a typical church, with two services on Sunday and special programming on Thursday.

Instead, the building houses as many as 75 men and women from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. seven nights a week, providing basic needs including beds and showers.

However, the Inn also provides several Bible study sessions each week and more traditional worship services Saturday morning, said Elder James McDonald, pastor of Emmanuel Apostolic Church.

"Wherever the will of the Lord is being done, that's a church," he said.

McDonald said reducing homelessness has long been a goal of his ministry.

"My assignment from God is to deal with the people who are less fortunate," he said. "Our work is to work with the people that are needy."

Ramsey said the Inn is as much a part of the church's mission as a choir is to other congregations.

Revoking the permit of the The Community Inn "is just like saying you have revoked the choir's permit," she said.

At a hearing June 8, the Board of Adjustment voted 5-0 to revoke the certificate of occupancy. According to the lawsuit, evidence presented at that meeting was "irrelevant, immaterial, prejudicial, incompetent and wholly lacking in probative value."

If the court will not reverse the revocation of the conditional-use permit, plaintiffs alternately asked for an order that the Board of Adjustment hold a new hearing.

Susan Straub, spokeswoman for the mayor's office, said Monday that the city could not comment on the lawsuit. However, Board of Adjustment members have spoken about the dispute before.

"It's our opinion, it is not fundamentally a church, but is fundamentally a homeless shelter," Chris King, director of the division of planning, said in May. "We don't believe this is what the Board of Adjustment approved."

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLPublicSafety.

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