Compassion Church Inc., which operates Timothy’s House of Hope, and two of its pastors have filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Davenport, Senior Planning Manager Matt Flynn and aldermen Ray Ambrose and Maria Dickmann.
The 32-page complaint, filed Friday in U.S. District Court, Davenport, by attorney Mike Meloy, claims that the defendants were in violation of religious federal constitutional rights, state constitutional rights and federal religious land use and institutionalized persons acts.
Pastors James Swope and Nicholas Cantwell also claim that they were defamed by Ambrose, who they said called them a “liar” and “deceptive.”
The city became embroiled in a dispute with Timothy's House of Hope, which had moved to 1602 Washington St. in the 4th Ward, after it issued a cease-and-desist order on April 19 in which it found that its morning meal service required a zoning change to Planned Institutional District–Housing and Supporting Services.
After discussions with the church, the city in June said the ministry did not need a zoning change to operate its ministry in the 4th Ward.
City Attorney Tom Warner said that after speaking with Swope, the intended uses for the property at 1602 Washington St. fit within its current C-2, General Commercial District, zoning.
Before moving to 1602 Washington St., the ministry operated a property on 1407 W. 4th St., which also is zoned C-2. But in 2012, the city amended its zoning ordinance, and that property was grandfathered in, causing confusion about why the city was within its rights to issue the cease-and-desist order at the new site.
In the federal complaint, Meloy claims the city, Ambrose and Flynn “expressly discriminated” against the church by issuing the cease-and-desist order to shut down a religious-based breakfast service at the church site.
Dickmann violated the religious rights of the church by telling Cantwell he needed to move from the current church site if he wished to continue serving breakfast, according to the complaint.
The church, Swope and Cantwell suffered economic injury and public embarrassment and incurred monetary damages as a direct result of the order and the closing of the church for 27 days and the attempts to force the church from the site, according to the complaint.
The order violated the religious rights of the church and the free religious rights of Swope, Cantwell and other church members by denying them their right to exercise religious practices, according to the complaint.
The order was in direct conflict with and violated the statutory lawful uses allowed by Davenport’s zoning code for churches in a “C-2” General Commercial District, according to the complaint.
The church is asking a judge to enter a preliminary injunction enjoining the defendants from “infringing on the church’s religious right to serve a breakfast and hold prayer gatherings and Bible readings by prohibiting future cease-and-desist orders from Davenport, Ambrose, Dickmann and Flynn.”
The church and pastors also are asking, among other things, that they be awarded monetary damages for the 27-day closure of their breakfast service and special damages to Swope and Cantwell for “libel, slander and defamation of character.”
The church and pastors also are asking for a jury trial.
"Almost every Quad City church serves food at their church site," Meloy said Tuesday in a statement to the Quad-City Times. "Davenport had no right to stop Compassion Church from feeding its congregation, including the poor and homeless. Davenport overstepped its authority."
City spokeswoman Jennifer Nahra said in an email Tuesday afternoon that the city is in receipt of the lawsuit and is reviewing it.
"The City will defend itself, its officials and its employees," she said.