Arizona church sues after city halts food ministry that fed families in need


An Arizona church is suing a city near the Mexican border, claiming that local officials unlawfully stopped the congregation from giving food to families in need through a ministry that has been in operation for around a quarter century. 

Gethsemani Baptist Church filed a complaint in federal court last week against the City of San Luis, Mayor Nieves G. Riedel, Acting City Manager Jenny Torres and City Code Enforcement Officer Alexis Gomez Cordova.

According to the filing, the city shut down a food ministry that has operated since 1999 and has regularly helped hundreds of impoverished families by distributing hundreds of thousands of pounds of food and sharing the Gospel. 

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The complaint states that following Riedel's election in 2022, the city began cutting support for the ministry and argued that the outreach program violated zoning laws, such as having semi-trucks in a residential area. City officials deemed the church to be engaging in "commercial-level food distribution."

"Since 2012, when the City adopted its current Zoning Code, the Church and its Food Ministry were treated as a 'legal nonconforming use,' meaning that it could continue to operate in the residential zone," the filing states.

"While the Food Ministry has certainly grown in scale in the years since its founding, requiring larger trucks as early as 2002 to effectively transport food and supplies, it has not dramatically changed in scope or character since the Zoning Code was adopted."

The city stated that the church couldn't operate the food ministry without a "conditional use permit," which the church believes would be "a fruitless and cost prohibitive effort."

"Because of Defendants' threats, the Church ceased almost all Food Ministry efforts and cancelled multiple events, including its annual Thanksgiving turkey drive-thru and its Christmas toy drive," the complaint reads. 

The city is also accused of treating nearby non-religious entities located blocks from the church more favorably when it comes to their use of commercial trucks in the residential zone. The complaint cites the use of commercial vehicles from FedEx, furniture stores, buses, food trucks, a tow truck company and a local head start program that "are frequently seen parking, loading, and unloading on residential streets and residences — sometimes, for hours or days at a time."

The church seeks relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which states that the government is prohibited from imposing or implementing a land use regulation that substantially burdens the religious exercise of a person or religious institution unless the government can prove that the burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling interest. 

Even though the church switched to using smaller trucks, the legal filing claims the city continued to enforce a "cease and desist" order. 

When reached for comment, a city spokesperson told The Christian Post that the "City of San Luis has to consult with its Attorneys on this matter."

The church is represented by the conservative legal group the First Liberty Institute as well as the law firm Snell and Wilmer L.L.P. 

"It's unconscionable that the City of San Luis won't allow Gethsemani Baptist Church to continue its 25-year mission of providing food for the hungry, hurting people in the surrounding communities," said FLI Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys in a statement.

"People who take action to care for the hungry should be encouraged and affirmed, not threatened and fined."

Last December, the church was forced to cease its food distribution charity, with Pastor Jose Manuel Castro telling CBS 5 that the ministry has "a lot of people with needs, a lot of people." He told the outlet that issues arose with the city in August after one of the trucks crashed into the fence of a nearby home, causing neighbors to complain.

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