Compassion Deficit

NY Times Editorial
Published: October 22, 2009

It’s far more than a local shame that a Pennsylvania pastor had to go to court to uphold the Bible’s mandate to comfort the homeless and needy. The minister, the Rev. Jack Wisor, won as the town of Brookville agreed to pay $100,000 and let him reopen the Just for Jesus shelter after inspectors had broken into the church in a harebrained attempt to prove it had violated zoning laws. The shame grows far beyond Brookville as more and more local governments respond to the recession’s hard times with similar variations on criminalizing homelessness.

New laws prohibiting loitering have increased 11 percent and bans on public camping are up 7 percent, according to a survey of more than 200 cities and towns by the National Coalition for the Homeless. Grass-roots meanness is too often on display. In Tampa, Fla., the Hillsborough County Commission backed away from a Catholic Charities plan for a fenced camp for the down and out. Politicians’ self-preservation trumped community charity when alarmed residents protested they were arming themselves in fear of homeless criminals.

Vox pop need not be so shabby. In Daytona Beach, Fla., the government works with charities to provide constructive shelter services in which the homeless help clean the city. In Cleveland, instead of the anti-begging and anti-loitering route being taken elsewhere, the city government coordinates with homeless advocates to make shelter and food programs more efficient.

The need for localities and states to opt for charity over enmity only grows as the recession swells the homeless ranks. The flow now includes a sizable cohort of innocent renters locked out by foreclosed landlords. Charity can only begin at home and must be extended through hometown government. “That’s what this country has been founded on,” one of the Hillsborough commissioners initially observed — before fearful residents had him switch his vote and disinvite the homeless.

Town Settles Homeless Case With Church

NY Times
Published: October 13, 2009

A town in central Pennsylvania that tried to shut down a church-run homeless shelter citing zoning code violations has agreed to pay the church and its lawyers $100,000 to settle a civil suit.

“I’m just thankful,” the Rev. Jack Wisor, pastor of First Apostles’ Doctrine Church in Brookville, Pa., said Tuesday after the settlement was announced. “I knew in my heart that once the truth was exposed, God would show we were doing the right thing.”

The church, which runs the Just for Jesus shelter in a century-old church building just off the Main Street business district, sued the town in November, saying it was infringing on the church’s religious liberty by forcing it to stop housing homeless people.

Brookville, a town of 4,230 people about 70 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, said the shelter qualified as a “group home” that was banned under zoning rules.

The suit was filed after a zoning inspector and borough police officers broke into the church by crawling through a window after church officials denied them entry to conduct an inspection.

In addition to the money, the borough had previously agreed to no limits on the number of homeless people who could stay at the church, which has been outfitted with cots and kitchen and bathroom facilities.



Brookville pays $100,000 to ministry

The Borough of Brookville has agreed to pay the First Apostles' Doctrine
Church and its lawyers $100,000 for shutting down the church's ministry
to homeless people last year. After the American Civil Liberties Union of
Pennsylvania filed suit against the borough last year, Brookville agreed to allow the church to resume housing homeless people in its parsonage.

"It is unfortunate that it had to come to this," the Rev. Jack Wisor, the church's pastor and founder of its outreach program to the homeless, said. "The monetary settlement will help the ministry help care for hundreds of people who come for help to the Just For Jesus Challenge Homeless Outreach." Brookville Borough Council President Scott Young said none of the settlement money will come from the borough's general fund.

 "This will be paid from our insurance policy and not by the taxpayers of Brookville," he said. Young said the council is taking the matter under review. The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit in November 2008 on behalf of Rev. Wisor, the church, and the "Just for Jesus Challenge Homeless Outreach," the church's ministry that Wisor founded in 2004 to help homeless people.

The suit alleged that the borough violated the church's religious beliefs when it shut down its homeless ministry by citing the church for zoning violations and refusing to allow it to resume housing homeless people in the parsonage. The lawsuit also claimed that the zoning inspector and several borough police officers violated the church's privacy rights by climbing into the church through a window after they had been refused permission to enter.

The zoning inspector wanted to see if the church was violating the order against allowing people to stay overnight, which they learned during their forcible entry and warrantless inspection that the church was not allowing overnight guests. A court hearing was averted after negotiations resulted in an agreement allowing the church to house up to eight guests and two staff. The agreement also required Brookville to dismiss the zoning-code-violation charges issued in August 2008, which were upheld by a local magistrate but that the church has appealed.

Subsequently, the agreement was modified to lift any restriction on the number of guests the church could house in its parsonage. "Local officials need to understand that feeding and sheltering the homeless is a form of religious liberty that receives the same constitutional protection as do more conventional church activities, like prayer services," said Witold Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania's Legal Director and one of the church's attorney.

Shelter Is Forced Out, and a Suit Follows (NY Times)

Published: November 22, 2008
BROOKVILLE, Pa. — There was no doubt in the Rev. Jack L. Wisor’s mind that he was doing the right thing when he decided to open a homeless shelter here four years ago.

The Rev. Jack L. Wisor has opened two homeless shelters. “I was called to do this by the Lord,” said Mr. Wisor, 45, a fiery born-again evangelical pastor whose often unfiltered passion has created as many enemies as it has friends in this town 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

But after local officials noticed he was housing people in the 111-year-old
First Apostles’ Doctrine Church and parsonage this past summer, they were not so sure they wanted the Just for Jesus shelter so close to the small town’s restored Main Street.

Downtown Brookville is a five-block-long strip of red-brick businesses and
Victorian homes, highlighted by the 141-year-old Jefferson County courthouse, making up a district inevitably called quaint by travel magazines.The borough considered Mr. Wisor’s shelter a “group home” that was banned by zoning for the area. In August, they forced him to move the four people who were living there to another shelter he has in nearby Brockway — where he has also battled the local government over its use.

“We were just trying to enforce our zoning codes,” said Stephen W. French, Brookville’s borough lawyer. “There was certainly no intent to discriminate here.”But that is exactly what the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania alleged in a lawsuit filed last week on Mr. Wisor’s behalf. The suit claims violation of the First Amendment, as well as the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which largely prohibits local governments from preventing religious organizations from carrying out their missions.

“At the core of this is that it’s difficult for the borough officials to wrap their mind around the concept that church use is more than a Sunday service,” said Witold J. Walczak, the organization’s legal director. “This entire church is set up to help the least fortunate.”

On Tuesday, a day after the lawsuit was filed, a federal judge granted a 60-day consent order that would allow Mr. Wisor to continue to use the site as a shelter while the two sides try to negotiate a permanent settlement.The quick move was in large part because of the education that borough officials received on federal law, even if it did not seem fair to them.

“I’m a small-town lawyer, and I’m not using that as an excuse, but I had not read those 2007 and 2008 federal decisions on this law,” Mr. French said. “The way I see it, it’s an abuse of federal power to override our zoning laws.”Many people in the area point out that even though Mr. Wisor’s aim is worthy, with his fiery persona, he can sometimes be his own worst enemy.“I think he’s a minister of the Gospel. He’s doing good work,” said the Rev. Tim McConville, pastor of Evangelical United Methodist Church in Brookville, and president of the Brookville Ministerial Association. “He often comes in with both guns blazing, and you’re either with him or against him.”

Mr. Wisor said he just preaches the Gospel, “and I don’t back down.”
He said the issue flared up this summer when, for the first time, he had two black men staying at the shelter — a fact that caught the attention of local business owners and officials, who had not even realized he was using the building.

“That’s an outrageous statement,” Mr. French replied. “There’s other black
people in town; why would the borough care?”

David Galbraith, owner of Galbraith Furniture, which is on Main Street, directly behind the Just for Jesus shelter, said that in a town of 4,230 that is 98 percent white, it was only natural that a stranger who was black would stand out. He said he had first noticed the shelter when one of the two black men dug in a trash bin behind his store.

He said it bothered him when he learned that one of the two men was wanted on a criminal warrant in Ohio. For many in town, Mr. Wisor’s shelter is something that is just not needed.
“If there is a large call to have a shelter because there’s a lot of local
homeless people, I haven’t heard it,” Mr. French said.

Mr. Galbraith agreed. “No, no, there’s not a lot of homeless here,” he said.
“The residents I’ve met at that shelter are from Cleveland and New York and Erie, not here.”

But Mr. Wisor, a former home builder who began his ministry in 2002 after
recovering from alcohol and drug addiction, said that roughly 75 percent of the 400 people he had helped through his shelters were from the area, even if they were largely invisible to many of the locals.

“Two weeks after I opened my shelter in Brockway, I had 36 people living there,” Mr. Wisor said. “And I asked people why they’d say there isn’t a homeless problem.”

A study released last month by a local task force found that at least 200 adults and children go homeless each year in Jefferson and nearby Clarion County. “The numbers we got were surprising,” said Sue Ann Blakesless, chairwoman of the task force. “And with the economy, they’re only going to get worse. His shelter certainly fills a need.”

Of church and borough: ACLU lawsuit comes to the aid of religious rights
Monday, November 24, 2008

The First Apostles Doctrine Church in Jefferson County takes very seriously the biblical admonition to minister to the poor, the homeless and the downtrodden.

The parsonage of the church has plenty of room -- five bedrooms, three baths -- so, since 2004, Pastor Jack L. Wisor has offered free, temporary shelter to disabled veterans, senior citizens, low-level offenders, evicted tenants and homeowners, and people referred by mental-health agencies. Typically, only a handful of guests were accommodated at a time.

A church performing the very sort of good work proposed in the good book should hardly be news. But verses in a book of another sort, the zoning code of Brookville, were used by officials in the tiny borough to try to stop its Just for Jesus Challenge Homeless Outreach ministry.

The ministry had proceeded unchallenged until July when zoning Officer Robert Receski issued a citation against the Rev. Wisor for allowing three homeless men to live in the building, which is attached to the 111-year-old church. The borough said the zoning code prohibits "group housing," and a district judge affirmed it. When the church asked to restart the service earlier this month, the borough said no.

Enter the American Civil Liberties Union, often unfairly derided as an enemy of religion. It filed a lawsuit and request for a temporary order arguing that a town cannot use its zoning regulations to prevent a church from engaging in its religious ministry. That's a violation of the church's rights under the Constitution and federal and state law. Further, the ACLU argued that the prohibition shouldn't be applied in this case because the group home classification refers to a "licensed care facility" such as a nursing home.

On the eve of a hearing scheduled for Wednesday, wisdom won the day. The borough's council agreed to allow the church to house as many as eight homeless people and two staff members in the parsonage. Brookville must dismiss the citation against Rev. Wisor, and the church and the borough will spend the next two months negotiating future uses for the building and any damages.

It's important that they work out the details to end this holy war.

Church sues for right to shelter homeless
Monday, November 17, 2008

The American Civil Liberties Union claims in a federal lawsuit filed this afternoon that a Jefferson County borough improperly enforced its zoning code, thereby denying a church its right to freely practice its religious ministry to help the homeless.

Filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of the First Apostles Doctrine Church, the suit claims Brookville Borough's refusal to permit the church to house homeless persons in its parsonage is discriminatory and violates the U.S. Constitution and federal and state law.

The lawsuit and the church's pastor, the Rev. Jack L. Wisor, contend the church should be allowed to provide shelter to "guests" in its parsonage because to do so is integral to its Just for Jesus Challenge Homeless Outreach ministry. The borough, located northeast of Pittsburgh, maintains such sheltering violates the municipality's zoning code.

The issue came to a head in the summer when the zoning officer for the borough of 4,600 residents cited the Rev. Wisor for violating the code by allowing three homeless men to live in the parsonage of the 111-year-old church. Following an Aug. 5 hearing, a district judge fined the pastor $500. The Rev. Wisor has appealed the district judge's ruling to Jefferson County Common Pleas Court. A hearing on that appeal is expected next month.

According to the suit filed today, the actions of the borough, its zoning officer, two police officers and another municipal employee violated the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment protection of the exercise of religion; the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure; the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000; and the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act.

The suit seeks a temporary restraining order, preliminary and permanent injunctions barring additional discrimination and violations; and payment of compensatory and punitive damages as well as attorneys' fees and costs.