The City of Lake Worth, Florida has taken the position that all churches must have a “business license” to conduct worship. City employees were even sent undercover like spies, to attend services to get video and other evidence for use in court.
Common Ground Church rents space from Common Grounds Coffee Bar to hold services in its back room on Sundays, just like other organizations rent the same space for meetings on other days of the week. Common Grounds Coffee Bar does have a business license.
City-code enforcement officer, Gerard A. Coscia, wearing a hoodie, was sent to the church service in February to film the service clandestinely like a KGB agent. The following Sunday, he returned to the church, handed Pastor Mike Olive his business card, and told him it would be his last Sunday. Neither the church nor the pastor had received any violation notices from the city.
The amazing thing is that Mark Woods, the manager of the city’s Code-Compliance Department insists that all houses of worship in the city must have a special business license in spite of the fact that the city ordinances specifically exempt churches and charitable organizations from having to get business licenses. Equally amazing is that the city has a history of falsifying inspections, employing unqualified inspectors and failing to clean up nuisance properties, as reported in a scathing audit of city practices in 2013.
It happens that the City Commissioner Andy Amoroso owns a newsstand and a gay-pornography shop in Lake Worth and warned the pastor against meeting in the coffee bar. Amoroso, who had been telling people that the church was anti-gay told him, “You better not have a church there. That better not be a church,” referring to the coffee bar. After that, an “anonymous complaint” was the basis for the under-cover compliance officer’s visit.
Never before has the city required business licenses. “We’ve been there 99 years and we’ve never had to have a license,” said Pastor Joan Abell of the First Presbyterian Church.
The city has even threatened Common Ground’s landlord with fines and foreclosure if the “violation” is not corrected. But when a church official tried to comply, the city employee refused to accept the church’s documentation of its IRS non-profit status. And in a follow up meeting with Commissioner Amoroso, a church member was told, “Oh, it’s for your own good.”
“It’s unconstitutional,” said Olive. “They can’t deny us a right to practice our religion in the city.”
“The city’s actions are completely baseless,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel.
Intimidation and pressure are becoming a more common weapon against those who uphold Bible principles concerning the gay lifestyle.
“…the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter… And they said, Stand back. And they said again, This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs be a judge: now will we deal worse with thee, than with them. And they pressed sore upon the man, even Lot, and came near to break the door.” Genesis 19:4, 9