Can free parking be a church ministry? Federal court in Florida says yes
Via Religion Clause, a federal court in Florida sided with a community church in St. Pete Beach in a dispute over the UCC congregation offering free parking to the public. The city fined Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church, which solicits donations from beachgoers who park there but does not charge a fee, for violating city ordinance regulating commercial parking lots.
The church claims the parking service is a ministry protected by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which bars local governments from posing a substantial burden to a house of worship through enforcement of land use regulations unless such enforcement is necessary to further a compelling government interest. The city argues that the church’s claim is not based on a sincere religious belief, and the city suggests the claim is a pretext for using the parking lot during off-hours to obtain donations.
The court rejected the city’s position, and ruled the church is likely to prevail on its RLUIPA claim. Here is an excerpt from the opinion:
At most, the City has demonstrated that the Church may have changed its mind over the years regarding the religious implications of its use of its parking lot, or that the Church may have mixed motives relating to its parking policies. This does not mean that the Church’s presently stated religious beliefs are not sincere… .
Offering free parking to attract new members, while occasionally charging for parking to raise money for a youth group, are not mutually exclusive or inconsistent motives. As noted by the Eleventh Circuit in Davila, “judges must not presume to determine the place of a particular belief in a religion or the plausibility of a religious claim.” Indeed, “[c]ourts are not arbiters of scriptural interpretation.”
The judge issued an injunction prohibiting the city from penalizing the church for providing parking for beachgoers. For more on this story, see this Religion News Service report by Paul O’Donnell. For more on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, see this RLUIPA resource page from BJC.