A south Florida church has received notice from local officials that it must obtain a business license or shut down, even though federal and local laws exempt churches from obtaining such licenses.
“That’s a violation of the First Amendment, but number two, it’s a violation of their own code,” Liberty Counsel chairman and founder Mat Staver said, “because churches [in Lake Worth, Fla.] are not required to get business licenses.”
Common Ground Church was told by Lake Worth city officials that it would have to cease its activities and pay up to $500 per day in fines if it did not obtain a business license by March 2, Staver said. Since that time, the city has opted not to enforce its demand, saying instead that the church, which meets in a coffee bar owned by the pastor, must obtain only a “use license” that regulates the number of people permitted to gather.
The city still claims Common Ground technically needs a business license, Staver said. He noted the Liberty Counsel will file a lawsuit if Lake Worth tries once again to enforce its policy. But even the use license requirement represents inequitable treatment of the Florida Baptist Convention church plant, he said.
Common Ground Church photo
Common Ground Church, which has been threatened by city officials, held a prayer rally for local government on the steps of Lake Worth, Fla., City Hall March 3.
“If you’re running a coffee bar, there’s no limit on the number of people in Lake Worth,” Staver said. “If you’re watching Monday Night Football in the coffee bar, there’s no limit. But if someone stands up, reads the Bible and prays, now the city of Lake Worth wants to put a limit on the number of people that can participate in worship. That’s not only unconstitutional, but it violates their local code.”
Pastor Mike Olive called the city’s treatment of the congregation “a war on Jesus.”
“Politicians and lawyers can frame it a different way, but I’m a preacher,” Olive said. “I really believe this is about Jesus and the message of light.”
The church’s trouble began following a December 2014 conversation between Olive and openly gay city commissioner Andy Amoroso in which Amoroso said, “You better not have a church down there,” according to a letter from Liberty Counsel to Lake Worth City Manager Michael Bornstein.
Amoroso did not return the Florida Baptist Witness’ call requesting a comment.
There is a large homosexual community in Lake Worth, Olive said, especially in the downtown district where Common Ground is located. But Olive said he has a good relationship with his neighbors, including a hard rock nightclub next door and a gay club three doors down.
The first time Olive heard that his church could be shut down was when a Lake Worth code compliance officer paid a courtesy call on a Sunday morning after services. Three days later, Olive’s landlord received a letter from the city code administration department detailing the church’s alleged violation of city law and instructing it to apply for a business license or face court proceedings.
The letter prompted Olive to contact Liberty Counsel, an international nonprofit that provides pro bono assistance to those whose religious freedoms are being threatened.
The city of Lake Worth, saying that it had received complaints regarding Common Ground’s services, conducted an investigation into its activities and determined that the church was in violation of city ordinances pertaining to business licenses.
Common Ground, which has approximately 120 members, is not the only church in Lake Worth to feel pressure from local government. Last December, the city sent out 900 letters to nonprofit and for-profit entities, asking them to comply with the municipal code requiring business licenses – though no such code exists for nonprofits.
First Presbyterian Church, which has ministered in Lake Worth for nearly 100 years without a business license, was among the groups notified of the license requirement, Staver said.
“The light is on downtown, and it can’t be put out,” Olive said.
Bornstein said in an emailed statement to the Witness that “while called a business license, not-for-profits and churches do not pay the business tax as they are tax free.”
Lake Worth director of community sustainability William Waters said in an email, “With regard to churches it seems many have complied [with the city’s order to obtain business licenses] or submitted applications.”
Waters said the letters to churches went out “as part of an outreach” to businesses that did not have a business license on record, whether for-profit or not.
But Olive noted there could be a deeper issue. He said government corruption and abuse of power possibly could have played a role in the city’s attack.
“We’re not a victim, and we’re not mad at the city,” Olive said. “We’re just living with the light on and want to exercise constitutional rights in the country we live in.”
Olive and Common Ground held a prayer rally on the steps of City Hall March 3. Olive said 150 people came to pray for the city and the local government.
“It was about talking to God, not talking to each other or the issues,” he said. “It wasn’t a spectacle – just people touching God on behalf of the city.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled from a release by the Florida Baptist Witness (gofbw.com) with reporting from Nicole Kalil and David Roach, chief national correspondent for Baptist Press.)