In New Life Evangelistic Center, Inc. v. City of St. Louis (E.D. Missouri 2013), Plaintiff, a Christian Church (the “Church”), provides a wide variety of services to the homeless in Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, and Arkansas. The Church leases vacant property in the City of St. Louis to hold worship services and assist the homeless. On May 14, 2013, the Church informed the City’s Director of Public Safety that it intended to place a 20 by 40 foot tent on the property to hold religious services. The next day, May 15, the Director responded unfavorably, referring the Church to other facilities that provide shelter and other housing services, but made no mention of the Church’s request for religious services. The Director added that he intended to condemn the property before it was occupied by the Church.
On May 16, the Church erected the 20 by 40 foot tent on the property and also arranged for a portable toilet on site. The Church conducted a religious service from noon until 4:00 p.m. which was attended by 15 people. No food preparation or storage or electrical services were being provided on the property.
At 5:00 p.m. on May 16, the City’s Department of Public Safety Division of Building and Inspection issued an emergency condemnation of the property. To justify the emergency condemnation, the department pointed to a city ordinance authorizing a condemnation where “an inspection of the property had been made, and the inspection revealed that the building(s) and/or premise(s) pose an immediate or imminent danger to public health, safety or welfare . . . and they cannot be made reasonably safe without immediate evacuation . . . .” City police officers dispersed those attending the religious service and took four people into custody for occupying the condemned premises.
In response, the Church brought a federal lawsuit alleging that the City’s actions in condemning the property substantially burdened its religious exercise (religious worship services and outreach to the homeless) in violation of its First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. The Church also claimed that the City’s actions violated its Due Process rights because the City did not have a proper emergency to deny the Church a hearing regarding the condemnation of its leased property. The City claimed the emergency condemnation was appropriate because the Church was planning a “homeless encampment” that would endanger the health and safety of the public.
The District Court granted the Church a preliminary injunction, finding that the Church was likely to succeed on the merits of its claims. In particular, the District Court concluded that “the ordinance at issue imposes no objective standards for determining what poses an immediate or imminent danger to the public health and safety or welfare. While [the City] attempts to argue that the ‘intended’ homeless encampment would cause widespread danger to the public safety and welfare, the evidence before the Court fails to substantiate [the City’s] concern. Quite simply, it appears [the City] acted too quickly in determining that Plaintiff’s erection of tents posed an immediate or imminent danger to the public health, safety or welfare.” The District Court found that an injunction was appropriate because it would prohibit the City from continuing to prevent the Church from exercising freely its religion, relying on Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976), for the principle that the “loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.” Moreover, granting the injunction, and allowing the Church to hold religious services under the tent, would not cause the City to suffer immediate or imminent danger to public safety, health, or welfare, as the Church does not cook or store food in the tents, has bathroom facilities available, and is not even required to obtain a permit to operate a tent of that size.