A church has filed suit against the City of Davenport, Iowa (the “City”), after the City issued it a Cease and Desist Order (the “Order”) prohibiting the service of meals to the homeless, alleging violations of RLUIPA’s substantial burden, equal terms, and nondiscrimination clauses, among others.

Compassion Church, Inc. (the “Church”) began conducting religious services, Bible readings and evangelism in Davenport in 2005.  In 2009, the Church’s pastoral ministry expanded its service offerings to include breakfast for congregation members, including the poor, the needy, and the homeless, under the name “Timothy’s House of Hope.”  Earlier this year, the Church further expanded its Davenport operations by purchasing real property at 1602 Washington Street (the “Site”).  The Site, which was designated as a historic landmark in 1979, is located in a “C-2” General Commercial District, a zone that allows a variety of commercial and residential uses as of right, including religious use.  Previously, the Site was home to a combination bingo parlor, bar and kitchen.

After purchasing the Site, two Church pastors painted a pre-existing sign at the Site to read: “Timothy’s House of Hope – Helping the hungry, hurting, and homeless, one need at a time.”  On April 10, 2017, the Church hosted its first daily breakfast service at the Site, serving meals to small groups of men, women and children while conducting religious services, just as it has at its other location in Davenport.  According to the Complaint, the Church’s breakfast services were met with resistance from at least two City Aldermen, who did not want “bums” in their neighborhood.  After just nine days of service, the City posted the Order on the Church’s front door, prohibiting the “serving of meals to the homeless and other support services” until the Site is rezoned as a “Planned Institutional District – Housing and Supporting Services” (or “PID-HSS”).

The Complaint alleges that the City has substantially burdened the Church’s religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA by prohibiting the Church from serving breakfast to the needy.  Additionally, the Complaint alleges that the City has violated RLUIPA’s equal terms clause, as it has not issued a cease and desist order to stop serving food to any other use in a C-2 zone in the fourth Ward of the City in over 20 years, nor has it issued such an order to any other Church in the City in over 20 years.  Moreover, another church in a C-2 zone began serving breakfast in June 2017, and, as of the date of the Complaint, the City had not ordered it to be rezoned as a PID-HSS.

Shortly after filing the Complaint, the Church also sought a preliminary injunction.  Earlier this week, the District Court for the Southern District of Iowa denied the preliminary injunction, finding that the Church had “failed to show there is a threat of irreparable harm if a preliminary injunction [was] not issued.”  The Court cited to communications between the Church and the City, in which the City indicated that it has no intention of enforcing the Order.  For instance, on May 22, 2017, the City Attorney told the Church that use of the Site to serve food in conjunction with a daily morning Bible study and prayer service complies with the building’s current zoning classification.  Shortly after the Church filed suit, the City Attorney again informed the Church that the City does not intend to enforce the Order.  In light of these facts, the Court determined that “there is no clear and present need for equitable relief.”  It is not clear what course of action the Church will take, given that the City apparently has no intention of enforcing the Order.

The Order denying the Church’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction in Compassion Church v. City of Davenport is available here.