Episcopal parish and partner church threatened with fines for operating outreach ministries in Philadelphia suburb

By Egan Millard
Posted Jul 6, 2022

Members of Christ Episcopal Church in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, serve a free community lunch in June 2021. Photo: Christ Episcopal Church

[Episcopal News Service] A Diocese of Pennsylvania parish has been cited for violating its town’s zoning code, with local officials claiming the church’s ministries to locals in need mean it no longer fits the definition of “church” and must stop the ministries by July 10 or apply for a zoning variance.

Christ Episcopal Church is one of two churches in the Philadelphia suburb of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, that received a violation notice on June 10, The Mercury reported. Once a week, the parish serves a free community meal and operates an essentials pantry, offering household basics and toiletries for free. According to the citation, that means it is no longer classified as a church, and thus does not meet the zoning criteria for the downtown district.

Mission First, two blocks from Christ Church on Pottstown’s main street, also received a notice. In the June 10 letter, shared by local radio station WHYY, a town code enforcement officer lists programs including free mental health counseling and the food and essentials ministries that are co-run with Christ Church and other churches, writing, “I could not find approval for these uses in our records. … It is the opinion of this office that the use of the property has changed, and by definition, is more than that of a church.”

The notice refers to the zoning code’s definition of “church” as “A building wherein persons assemble regularly for religious worship and that is used only for such purposes and for those accessory activities as are customarily associated therewith.

“By July 10, the notice says, the churches must either stop operating any programs beyond that definition or apply for a variance for non-permitted uses. If they continue operating the programs, they could be fined up to $500 per day plus court costs. They can also file appeals.

The Rev. Dennis Coleman, deacon at Christ Church, told Episcopal News Service the parish does not intend to stop the programs, nor will it apply for a variance. Parish leaders are working with attorneys and the diocese to determine the next steps, he said.

“We are going to speak out against this. It is a higher calling to do this work and we will not stop doing it,” Coleman told The Mercury. “This church has been here for 250 years and as long as anyone can remember, it has been of service to the community in need.”

“This is the very definition of our faith – to embody Jesus and serve all people, especially the poor,” Pennsylvania Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez wrote in a statement to Episcopal News Service.

Pottstown officials did not immediately respond to questions from ENS about the citations and potential legal challenges.

The case mirrors that of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in the town of Brookings, Oregon, which passed an ordinance in 2021 restricting the church’s ability to continue serving free meals. St. Timothy’s continued serving meals four days a week, and when threatened with enforcement fines, the parish and the Diocese of Oregon sued the town in federal court, arguing that the ordinance is unconstitutional.

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.