- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 27, 2022

A federal court in Tampa ordered the City of St. Pete Beach to pay more than $250,000 in fees to attorneys representing a church in the small enclave of Pass-A-Grille Beach that allowed beachgoers to use its 70-space parking lot when the congregation was not holding services.

The Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church, a United Church of Christ congregation, sometimes collected donations from weekday parking patrons, who were also approached by members of its youth group to offer prayer and share a Christian message.

The church claimed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), enacted in 2000, protected its right to allow visitors to use the parking lot just steps from the beach. Church officials said the 65-year-old property had always permitted visitor parking during non-worship times, although it only began accepting free-will donations in 2016.

The funds went to underwrite mission trips, the church said.

A neighbor complained and the city of St. Pete Beach — separate from the nearby city of St. Petersburg — fined the church $1,000 for violating land-use rules, decreeing those not participating in “a legitimate church purpose” could not use the parking lot.

“The church is not the church if ministry and discipleship are defined by entering a church building, then leaving, because the church will be penalized if you visit a friend, walk the beach, or break bread with a neighbor,” the Rev. Keith A. Haemmelmann, the church’s senior pastor, said in a statement when the lawsuit was filed.

Saying the church would likely win its RLUIPA case, federal District Judge Thomas Barber, appointed to the bench by President Trump, granted an injunction against the city’s enforcement of the land-use regulations.

The city and the church later settled, media reports indicated, with the church receiving a $15,000 cash payment and both sides agreeing to mediation should future disputes arise.

On Wednesday, Judge Barber awarded lawyers representing the church $254,018.68 in attorney’s fees and $4,347.70 in associated costs.

“This fee award is an example of the financial penalties local governments must pay when they violate RLUIPA, which protects the church’s right to use its parking lot in accordance with its religious mission to show biblically-based hospitality,” attorney Noel W. Sterett of Detroit law firm Dalton & Tomich said.

The Washington Times has contacted the city of St. Pete Beach for comment.

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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