Can free parking be a church ministry? Florida federal court says yes

Via Religion Clause, a federal court in Florida sided with a St. Pete Beach community church in a dispute over the UCC congregation offering free parking to the public. The city fined the Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church, which solicits donations from beachgoers who park there but does not charge a fee, for violating the city ordinance regulating commercial parking lots.

The church says parking service is a ministry protected by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits local governments from placing a substantial burden on a place of worship by enforcing land use regulations, unless such enforcement is necessary to pursue a compelling public interest. The city argues that the church’s claim is not based on sincere religious belief, and the city suggests that the claim is a pretext for using the after-hours parking lot to obtain donations.

The court rejected the city’s position and ruled that the church would likely prevail on its RLUIPA claim. Here is an excerpt from the review:

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 regarding its parking policies. This does not mean that the religious beliefs currently declared by the Church are not sincere….

Offering free parking to attract new members, while occasionally charging for parking to raise funds for a youth group, are not mutually exclusive or inconsistent motivations. As Davila’s Eleventh Circuit noted, “judges should not purport to determine the place of a particular belief in a religion or the plausibility of a religious claim.” Indeed, “[c]Ours are not the arbiters of the interpretation of Scripture.

The judge issued an injunction prohibiting the city from penalizing the church for providing parking for bathers. For more on this story, see this Religion News Service report by Paul O’Donnell. To learn more about Religious Land Use Law and Institutionalized Persons, check out this BJC RLUIPA resource page.

Charles K. Eckert