This news out of Florida is one of those David and Goliath type lawsuits, the little guy against the giant.
City Walk Urban Mission in Wakulla County, Crawfordville, Florida, a small faith-based ministry whose motto is “every saint has a past, every sinner has a future” has come under fire by some of the town’s folk and law enforcement.
Since 2013, this tiny non-profit ministry has worked to help rehabilitate ex-offenders, provided food and shelter, assistance in procuring employment and for some, reconnection with their families. The ministry’s address, a heavily wooded 3.4- acre piece of property, was accepted as a “registerable address” by the county, they were approved by Wakulla County Planning and Zoning Department as a “family care home” and advised that they could accommodate 6 individuals at a time, including staff. The program worked with 3 clients at a time and since their inception, more than 80 clients have been served by the program.
Life at City Walk Urban Mission ran smoothly for at least a year and a half, that is until an ill-willed neighbor of the Mission alerted the community to the fact that “sex offenders” were residing at City Walk. And so, it began, flyers of Florida’s sex offender registry which included the Mission’s residents, were distributed throughout the neighborhood. There were break-ins and broken windows. Complaints to governmental authorities resulted not in assistance, but in the county’s withdrawal of their approval of the Mission’s operations as well as numerous attempts to have the program shut-down.
Instead of support from local law enforcement, the Mission’s harassment and vandalism reports were met with additional harassment from authorities.
An A-frame swing was built by a neighbor, stuck in a ditch in front of the Mission and the area declared “a park”. The county then refused to register new residents at the Mission address saying it was “too close to a park.” (Although this was subsequently over-turned by the state.)
A neighbor scattered trash across the Mission’s lawn, then filmed residents while they picked it up, recording himself saying “Look at the trash picking up trash”. Law enforcement did nothing.
A sheriff’s deputy searched the Mission without a warrant, taking photos, looking for evidence of illegal activities or code violations.
The town’s Building Inspector advised the Executive Director of the Mission that if she didn’t house any more sex offenders, the Mission would be left alone. He prefaced his comment by saying, if asked, he would deny ever having said it.
In the past when irate neighbors joined together to oust half-way houses or transitional programs such as this one from neighborhoods, the facilities often just hung their heads, quietly closed their doors and swiftly left town under cover of darkness.
But not today. Today when Goliath comes calling, David doesn’t get a rock, he gets a lawyer.
City Walk’s attorney, Noel Sterett, a religious liberty attorney, states “The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) protects City Walks right to serve those God has called them to service, free from governmental interference and discrimination.” According to Sterett, there are other transitional homes in Wakulla County.
So, the issue isn’t the fact that City Walk Urban Mission is a transitional home, doing good things, getting ex-offenders back on their feet, preventing them from being homeless, helping them get a step-up in life. No, the issue is that those they are helping include those pesky “sex offenders”.
Would there have been a problem if there wasn’t a registry? If names, pictures and other personal information wasn’t available online for “un-neighborly neighbors” to use as ammunition against those who have served their sentences, those who aren’t bothering anyone, those who are just trying to quietly live their lives?
A case has been filed in United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida. A hearing date has yet to be set.
Wakulla County authorities had no comment.
In the end, David defeats the giant Goliath and cuts off his head.
City Walk Urban Mission isn’t asking for anything that drastic, they only ask to be treated “equally,” no matter who their clients are.