Arizona City Won’t Let This Church Feed the Hungry

March 22, 2024
First Liberty Insider | Gethsemani Food Ministry

by Jorge Gomez • 3 min read

They’ve been feeding hungry families for 25 years. Now, the city is shutting them down.

Pastor Jose Castro leads Gethsemani Baptist Church in San Luis, Arizona. The congregation has distributed hundreds of thousands of pounds of food to its community. About 300 families receive food with every distribution. The church also donates food to other churches in surrounding cities and in California.

During the pandemic, the church organized 15 drive-thru events for families to obtain food. Two were held in the parking lot at city hall, where San Luis City Council members helped distribute food.

But now, city officials are trying to stop the church’s ministry to feed the hungry.

After new officials took over in San Luis, the city sent a letter last fall ordering the church to stop using semi-trucks for food delivery at its property. Attempting to resolve the order, the church offered to use smaller trucks. The city denied the request and told the church it must stop the food ministry entirely. These limitations make it functionally impossible to carry out the ministry in the same way.

Since receiving the city’s letter, Pastor Jose had to significantly cut back on the food ministry. He’s tried to continue feeding the hungry as best he can under these limitations. But this wasn’t enough for the city of San Luis and its new Mayor, Nieves Riedel.

Just a few weeks ago, while Pastor Jose passed out emergency food supplies to a small group of people at the church, a city code enforcer showed up unannounced and issued him four citations. Less than a week later, when a third party parked a truck in front of the church for just five minutes, the code enforcer returned and issued Pastor Jose four more citations.

Not only will Pastor Jose have to pay fines in municipal court, each future violation may result in criminal charges.

These aggressive tactics have now forced Gethsemani to pause its ministry, as the church and Pastor Jose cannot afford the heavy fines or to relocate.  Because of the City and Mayor Riedel’s intimidation tactics, the church cannot feed the hungry.  That means people are going hungry right now.

First Liberty filed suit in federal court last week on behalf of the church. We’re asking the court to stop the city from abusing its city code and to allow the church to continue its ministry.

Sound familiar? You may recall that First Liberty is defending Pastor Chris Avell in Bryan, Ohio. That city at one point levied criminal charges against him. Why? Simply for keeping Dad’s Place Church open 24/7 to serve anyone who needed help, including the homeless.

Our attorneys got the criminal charges dropped. But we’re still working out the details to make sure Dad’s Place can keep serving its community without being harassed.

Churches shouldn’t be threatened or fined for feeding the hungry and caring for the most vulnerable. That betrays everything that religious freedom in America is about. The First Amendment protects the right of houses of worship to live out their faith—which most certainly includes compassionate ministries that help people in need.

What Pastor Jose and his congregation do is a labor of love. Government should support—not punish—houses of worship that do essential work for their communities.

Harassment and religious discrimination should not happen in America. That’s why we’re going to federal court to defend Pastor Jose and Gethsemani Baptist Church.

You can help us win his case. It would mean so much to the Pastor, the congregants and the hundreds of families impacted by his ministry. And by winning for this church, you’re also going to help protect religious freedom for every American, including YOU.

Pastor Jose needs your support. Please give to First Liberty today.

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