Federal Judge Says Countys Attempt to Evict Church Was Unconstitutional

Mar 16, 2004

ORLANDO, FL – District Court Judge Gregory Presnell in the Middle District of Florida issued an opinion last week in the case of Open Homes Fellowship v. Orange County. The final Order in the case declared that Orange County’s attempts to evict Open Homes from its property on which it has been ministering for ten years were unconstitutional. Open Homes Fellowship is represented by Mathew D. Staver, President and General Counsel of Liberty Counsel, and by Erik Stanley, Chief Counsel for Liberty Counsel.

In 1993, Open Homes Fellowship purchased property on Central Park Avenue in Orlando. Previously, Open Homes had been scattered throughout Orange County and wanted to consolidate on one piece of property. Before purchasing the property, Open Homes received assurances from Orange County that it had proper zoning to locate and minister on the property. Based on these assurances, Open Homes purchased the property and operated without incident for almost ten years.

Since 1993, Open Homes Fellowship has operated a church and its “Regeneration Program” on the property. The Regeneration Program is a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. The goal of the program is to introduce men to Jesus Christ and His Church and to help them through Christ to gain freedom from both addiction and alienation from society. Hundreds of men have received assistance in overcoming drug and alcohol addiction through the Regeneration Program. The Regeneration Program operates without incident or danger to the community. Despite the valuable service Open Homes provides the community, on June 6, 2002, Open Homes was cited for operating without proper zoning approval. Orange County told Open Homes that it must apply for and receive a special exception permit to operate its program on its property. Open Homes applied for the special exception and, after two contentious public hearings during which several neighbors opposed Open Homes’ activities, Open Homes was denied zoning approval and given until September 8, 2003, to vacate the property.

Judge Presnell’s Order declared that Orange County’s attempts to evict Open Homes were unconstitutional as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. The opinion focused on the prejudice exhibited by the neighbors and adopted by Orange County against recovering drug and alcohol addicts and churches. The judge focused on the fact that Open Homes was treated differently from other similar institutions and the only reason for the different treatment was because it was a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center and a church. The Order brought to a successful conclusion Open Homes’ lawsuit against Orange County to protect its ministry from eviction by the County. Open Homes stated several times throughout the litigation that it would be forced to shut down its ministry if it were not successful in the lawsuit.

Mat Staver, President and General Counsel of Liberty Counsel, stated, “We are elated that the Judge prevented Orange County from evicting Open Homes from its property. Churches and the faith-based ministries they operate are entitled to equal treatment with secular institutions providing similar services.” Staver added, “Orange County treated Open Homes differently simply because it was prejudiced against recovering drug and alcohol addicts and church activities. This is discrimination in its worst form that cannot be tolerated in our society.” Staver concluded, “Orange County learned an expensive lesson that others should take notice of - it is unconstitutional to treat churches and religious ministries on less than equal terms with secular groups and assemblies.”