Court orders utility company restore power to church's rehab shelter

Unsplash/Gregory Hayes

A Tennessee court has ordered a utility provider to turn the power back on at a church-run addiction recovery shelter that had previously been ordered to close by the city. Residents were forced to live in a hotel and several refrigerators' worth of food spoiled. 

The Circuit Court for Sumner County this week issued a temporary restraining order, directing the Tri-County Electric Membership Corporation to restore power to The Father's House, a ministry for people recovering from addiction operated by Living Water Full Gospel Church in Westmoreland. 

Judge Joe H. Thompson ruled that the shelter suffered "immediate and irreparable injury, loss of damage," and said the order was needed so the property could be used for religious services, related ministry and housing of residents. 

According to a lawsuit, Tri-County Electric Membership Corporation claimed that the power was turned off due to a failed inspection by the Tennessee Department of Insurance and Commerce conducted in March. 

However, the church contends it wasn't aware of the inspection report until it was provided after the power had already been shut off. The lawsuit claims that nothing in the report suggested that the power needed to be shut off, nor did the TDIC request for the power to be turned off. TDIC also approved a plan for remediation for the code violations. 

Losing power caused food in three refrigerators and two freezers to spoil. In the meantime, the shelter has housed residents in a hotel, a place often frequented for illicit drug use that could threaten residents' sobriety. The power being off also stopped the church from holding religious gatherings.

"Tri-County Electric is abusing the power it wields as a utility provider and forcing the men who rely on the Father's House to support their sobriety back on the streets, putting their very lives in jeopardy," Steve Anderson of the law firm Anderson & Reynolds said in a statement. 

He thanked the court for stepping in "to prevent further harm to men who are already struggling with addiction."

The plaintiffs are also represented by the First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal organization dedicated to religious freedom cases. First Liberty Institute counsel Ryan Gardner described the utility's decision to cut off the power as an "indifference to the health and well-being of The Father's House residents."

"A mistake by the electric company may be explainable, but since being informed of its error, Tri-County has refused to take responsibility or do the right thing," Gardner said. 

In January, the same lawyers asked the city of Westmoreland, Tennessee, to stop trying to close down The Father's House after city officials told the church to stop running the program because of a building code issue.

The city sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Father's House last August, claiming that the ministry unlawfully operates a residential facility on its property.

The attorney demanded that city officials withdraw the cease-and-desist letter and "acknowledge in writing that the Church is within its legal rights to conduct the ministry of providing housing to those in need."

The city initially approved the facility in 1999 as a "new addition" for "institutional" use, and the city's zoning ordinances permit residential living in the attached building owned by the church. Additionally, church officials asked the city in early 2022 if additional permits were needed and were allegedly told that no other requirements needed to be met.

Since January, attorneys for the ministry worked with the Tennessee Attorney General's office to resolve underlying issues with the city before the power was shut off, according to First Liberty Institute.

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