March 2021 Church & State Magazine | AU Bulletin

A Florida city may not stop a church from allowing people to use its parking lot free of charge to access a nearby beach, a federal court has ruled.

The case concerned Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church in St. Pete Beach. City officials said the church’s policy of allowing beach visitors to use its 77-space parking lot violated city ordinances, which the officials said limits the use of the parking lot to people who are at the church for services or other church-related business. The church’s neighbors had objected to the free-parking practice, and urged the city to put a stop to it. City officials fined the church over the issue.

The church argued that it hopes to use “biblically-based hospitality” to help people visit the beach and spur evangelism. It even pointed to Bible verses to support its views.

U.S. District Judge Tom Barber ruled in favor of the church Jan. 26. Barber cited the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a 2000 federal law that gives houses of worship heightened protection in zoning matters.

 “[T]he ultimate question is whether the Church is, in essence, seeking to perpetuate a fraud on the Court – whether it actually holds the beliefs it claims to hold regarding its use of its parking lot,” Barber wrote. “The Church, through its verified filings, including the declarations of two of its ministers, has explained the religious basis for its position, including citations to the Bible.” (Pass-A-Grille-Beach Community Church v. City of St. Pete Beach)