City drops charges against pastor as sides negotiate over Ohio church's 24/7 ministry

REMOVES SECOND REFERENCE TO TOWN DROPPING CHARGES FILE - This image taken from video provided by WTVG shows Pastor of Dad's Place Chris Avell, right, sitting inside Bryan Municipal Court on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, in Bryan, Ohio. (WTVG via AP)

An Ohio city has dropped criminal charges against a pastor over his around-the-clock ministry to the homeless and others in need of help while the two sides work to end the dispute that has landed in federal court.

A municipal prosecutor this week moved to dismiss code violation charges against Dad’s Place church Pastor Chris Avell, weeks after the church filed a federal lawsuit accusing the city of Bryan of trying to repeatedly harass and intimidate it. The city said it wanted to reserve the right to refile charges against Avell if needed.

The lawsuit remains pending, but a lawyer for the city told a federal judge on Monday that a mediation session last week “was productive and the parties continue to pursue resolution.”

Jeremy Dys, a lawyer for Avell, said Friday that Dad’s Place plans to continue to provide temporary shelter to people while it seeks to resolve disputes about the sanctuary’s zoning status and conditions.

“The church will continue to temporarily shelter people at Dad’s Place church, even while we continue to talk to the city about how Dad’s Place is a productive member of the Bryan community,” Dys said. He said a judge granted the motion to dismiss charges against Avell on Thursday.

Bryan Police charged Avell last month with 18 violations, saying the church was violating the city’s zoning ordinance, lacked proper kitchen and laundry facilities and had unsafe exits and inadequate ventilation. The rented church building is beside a separate homeless shelter on Main Street in the city of about 8,600 in northwestern Ohio.

Dad’s Place said in a statement released late Thursday that it will pursue building certifications, zoning permits and safety measures.

“I am thankful to God, the city, and for everyone who has been praying for this day to come,” Avell said in the release. “Bryan is my home. I am eager to continue to serve God, my community, and the people I love.”

The city’s mayor, Carrie Schlade, said in the statement that officials appreciated the effort to negotiate and said work was continuing to resolve their disputes. She is a defendant in the federal lawsuit, along with the city and other Bryan officials.

Police sought charges against Avell for code violations in December. He pleaded not guilty in municipal court Jan. 11.

Church leaders decided almost a year ago to remain open around-the-clock as a temporary, emergency shelter. They’ve said about eight people have stayed there on a typical night, a few more in bad weather.

“I truly believe that everyone who walks through the door of Dad’s Place walks out a better citizen,” Avell told The Associated Press last month.

The church’s “Rest and Refresh in the Lord” overnight ministry has included readings of the Bible piped in under dim lights, with people allowed to come or go. Two volunteers watched over things.

The city said police calls related to church activity began to increase in May for problems such as criminal mischief, trespassing, theft and disturbing the peace. A planning and zoning administrator eventually ordered the church to stop housing people in a zone where first-floor residential use is not allowed.

The church sued to ask the federal court to stop what it considers violations of constitutional rights to free exercise of religion and protections against government hostility to religion. It asked for a restraining order or an injunction against Bryan “enforcing or applying the city’s ordinances to burden the plaintiff’s religious exercise.”