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Laws? City Of Lake Worth Florida Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Laws.

Lake-Worth-Boot-ROHThe City of Lake Worth, Florida decided to attack a church requiring it to have a business license despite local ordinances saying the church was not required to do so.

The incident appears to have started when a legal and licensed coffee shop run by the Common Ground Church was the subject of an anonymous complaint to the City because the shop being used to hold services in the rented space as well. Prior to the complaint, Pastor Mike Olive had heard that City Commissioner Andy Amoroso was making statements that the church was “anti-gay.” When Olive went to talk to Amoroso, Amoroso told Olive “”you better not have a church down there.”

Apparently Amoroso doesn’t understand the concept that people don’t need his permission or the City’s permission to meet and worship. It’s that whole pesky First Amendment thing, you know.

After the complaint was made, the City sent code enforcement inspector Gerard Coscia to the coffee house. Coscia never identified himself to anyone nor did he have on a City ID. Instead, Coscia wore a hoodie and had a hidden camera filming the location and the people in the building.

If this weren’t America, we would say that the actions of Coscia were more akin to religion oppressive regimes like communist China and North Korea or even the former USSR. (We won’t even mention some of the Islamic states where faiths other than Islam are under attack.) No matter who we want to compare the situation to, the actions of Coscia were suspect in many ways.

Coscia’s report on the inspection is telling. While the whole report can be read here, some of the Coscia’s comments include:

I walked back to the Coffee Bar and was able to visualize, in my opinion what appeared to be a ministry in progress

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.

…..

I was approached by an unknown man with a cross around his neck,…..

…….

I asked him if it was a church gathering or a coffee shop and he replied, both but on Sundays there are two services and to, come back at 11:00

How dare anyone worship without government approval!

Coscia’s report also lists the violation:

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. (emphasis ours)

At the bottom of the report, Coscia gives the phone number where to obtain a business license.

However, the city does not require churches to have a business license.

Matt Staver and the Liberty Counsel stepped in to help the church and in a letter to the City of Lake Worth noted:

Chapter 14 of the Lake Worth Code of Ordinances indeed requires businesses to possess a valid business license. However,a church is NOT a “business,” and the Lake Worth Code of Ordinances Section 14-2, Definitions, itself recognizes this principle:

Business, profession or occupation means a person engaged in or managing any commercial, industrial, or professional activities. Activities include, but are not limited to, the making, buying, or selling goods or providing services, renting/leasing property for any purpose in exchange for compensation or for profit or non-profit purposes. Exempt from this definition are the customary religious, charitable or educational activities of nonprofit religious, nonprofit charitable and nonprofit educational institutions which are more particularly defined and limited in F.S. § 205.033. (Emphasis Added).

Aside from the clear terms of the City’s own ordinance, specifically exempting religious institutions from the business license requirement (as well as Section 14-24 “Business Tax Schedule,” which states that “Charitable Organizations” pay “No Fee”), nothing in F.S. § 205.033 authorizes the City to impose a tax on religious bodies. Moreover, F.S. § 205.191 specifically states that Section 205 “does not require a business tax receipt for practicing the religious tenets of any church.”

In addition, the issuance or sale of occupational licenses and the collection of license taxes are the exclusive prerogative of the Florida legislature, and a municipality may not establish any method of selling such licenses or collecting such taxes which would be in conflict with state law. Florida Op.Atty.Gen., 84-65, July 13, 1984 (1984 WL 182513). Clearly, seeking to impose a tax on the Free Exercise of religion in the form of a “business license” for Churches and their religious use of their own or rented property would conflict with Florida Statutes 196.012 (1), which defines an “exempt use of property” or “use of property for exempt purposes” as a “predominant or exclusive use of property owned by an exempt entity for educational, literary, scientific, religious, charitable, or governmental purposes,” as defined in that chapter. The term “public worship” means “religious worship services and those other activities that are incidental to religious worship services, such as educational activities, parking, recreation, partaking of meals, and fellowship.” Fla. Stat. Ann. § 196.196 (emphasis added).

Laws? They are for the other guys – the little guys like citizens. Cities like Lake Worth doesn’t have to follow its own laws, the laws of the State of Florida, or the US Constitution. Lake Worth seems to think they are above it all.

When news of this attack on the Common Ground Church started to circulate, the City doubled down and in order not to appear to have singled out the church for the confrontation between Pastor Olive and Commissioner Amoroso, the City began to send notices to all churches requiring they get business licenses – despite never having to do so before.

One such church which received a notice was First Presbyterian Church.

With the attention from media and Liberty Counsel gathering steam, the City has backed off somewhat saying the issue was not a business license, but rather an “Use and Occupation” (UA) certificate.

The problem we have with that explanation is that Inspector Coscia’s report and the letter authored by the City to Common Ground make no mention of a UA certificate – only a business license. The second problem is why did Coscia’s own report list the violation as not having a business license? The third problem is “if the issue is unique to the Common Ground Church, why did the First Presbyterian Church get a similar notice requiring a business license?

Furthermore, the City released the so called “clarification letter” to the press days before notifying Common Ground or Liberty Counsel.

It seems that it is more likely that the City got caught and was trying to put on the best public relations face for the incident, rather than saying “we were wrong.”

If nothing else, incidents like this show that municipalities are not above ignoring the laws to trample the rights of people when the City, employees of the City or even elected official don’t like what groups or individuals are legally doing.

Somehow those people think their opinions can stomp on citizens like jackbooted thugs – and use taxpayer money to back up their actions.



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