The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • Florida District Court Says Church Can Offer Free Parking for Beachgoers

  • March 3rd, 2021 — by Betsy Lee Montague — Category: Miscellaneous

  • A Florida federal district court recently ruled that the City of St. Pete Beach (the City) cannot prevent a local church from offering free parking to the public. The City had fined Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church (the Church) for violating a city ordinance regulating commercial parking lots after the church permitted beachgoers and tourists to utilize its parking lot for free. Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church is located across the street from Pass-a-Grille Beach and has around 80 parking spaces, the majority of which remain empty aside from Sundays. The Church has allowed the general public to use its parking lot to easily access the beach since 1957. According to the Church, such offerings help attract people to the congregation and affords it a “unique opportunity to serve the community and reach out to people who may not otherwise come to the church.”

    Beginning in 2016, the Church’s youth group decided to evangelize, pray for, and seek donations for their mission trips from people parking in the Church’s parking lot. Donations, however, were not required; the Church’s donation box states that no payment is necessary to use the parking lot. The Church hoped to use its “biblically-based hospitality” to help people enjoy a fun day at the beach with friends and families.

    In June 2016, the City began citing the Church for violations of various municipal parking restrictions on commercial parking lots in response to complaints filed by neighbors of the Church. A local magistrate dismissed the litigation stating that the Church was allowed to accept donations provided that they did not advertise the parking as a “fundraiser.” In 2020, the City fined the Church $1,000—this time under a land regulation ordinance that prohibits the Church from allowing anyone not engaged in a “legitimate church purpose” from utilizing its parking lot. In response to the citation, the Church filed a complaint in federal district court, seeking an injunction against the land use regulation restricting the use of its parking lot. The Church claimed that its free parking practices were protected by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits local governments from imposing “substantial burdens” on churches through enforcement of regulations unless such enforcement is required to further a compelling government interest. As a result, the central issue in the case boiled down to whether the Church’s religious beliefs regarding its use of the parking lot were sincere, as required under RLUIPA, or the Church’s stated beliefs were merely offered to circumvent the City’s land use ordinances.

    The City claimed the Church’s beliefs were not sincere because the congregation did not always offer free parking; rather, they charged for parking or accepted voluntary donations from time to time. The court dismissed this argument, observing that a religious group is free to change its mind over time, and that the fact the Church did not always offer free parking in the past did not mean that the Church’s religious beliefs were not sincere. The court was satisfied with the Church’s explanation of its religious basis for its position, as attested to by filings and testimonies from the Church’s ministers that were submitted into evidence.

    In reaching its decision, the court reasoned that attracting new members is an important goal of all community and religious groups and, likewise, giving away something for free—such as parking—is a “time-honored strategy used to generate attention, create interest, and attract new customers.” Finding the City made no showing of a compelling government interest to enforce the land use regulation at issue against the Church, the Court granted a preliminary injunction on the grounds that there is a substantial likelihood that the Church would prevail on the merits under RLUIPA. Further, the court enjoined the City from “prevent[ing] or attempt[ing] to prevent the Church from continuing to allow the general public to use its parking lot, soliciting charitable donations on the lot, and evangelizing those who park in its lot.”

  • Betsy Lee Montague
    NSGLC Research Associate

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