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City Walk homeless shelter files a federal lawsuit against the City of Tallahassee claiming religious freedom violations

city walk resident smoking at an outdoor table
Patrick Sternad
/
WFSU Public Media
Louis, a resident of the City Walk Church, smokes a cigar on the back patio seating area.

City Walk Urban Mission is suing the City of Tallahassee in federal court amid a battle over whether the shelter can continue operating its facility on Mahan Drive.

According to the lawsuit, City Walk says a decision by the Tallahassee-Leon County planning commission to deny the organization a permit violates the organization’s First Amendment religious freedom protections.

Gary Edinger, an attorney representing City Walk, referred to the shelter as a “religious residential mission.” The lawsuit, which is over 100 pages in length, alleges that the City of Tallahassee does not allow this religious group to assemble without governmental permission.

Edinger says if the federal court sides in favor of City Walk, government permission would no longer be required for transitional residential facilities to operate in Tallahassee, although shelters such as the one operated on Mahan Drive would still need to be in accordance with the city’s zoning law.

city walk room
Patrick Sternad
/
WFSU Public Media
A resident's empty room at the City Walk homeless shelter.

Last year an administrative law judge recommended the shelter remain open if stricter guidelines were put in place for it to operate safely and in line with Tallahassee ordinances, but the Planning Commission still voted to deny their permit request. Edinger believes that political pressure is what forced the Commission’s hand.

“What you see is when City Walk is given a fair hearing before a neutral and knowledgeable arbiter, like the administrative law judge,” said Edinger, “the finding is that City Walk’s religious mission should be allowed.”

During the planning commission meeting, residents and business owners from around the area spoke about how their neighborhood has changed since City Walk began operations on Mahan Drive. They voiced concerns about public intoxication, panhandling, urination and defecation on private property.