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Lake Worth Makes National News for "Soviet-Style Attacks" On Religious Freedom

A small coffee shop/church in Lake Worth has made headlines around the country after its pastor accused city officials of forcing him to have a "business license" to have worship services on Sunday. But it all seems to be either a slight misunderstanding or wild exaggeration.

Pastor Mike Olive is the owner of the nonprofit Common Grounds Coffee Bar, a three-month-old establishment that holds church services on Sunday. But after a city official came by to see what was going on (and wiring a report that has been described as "something out of a KGB report" although this may be due to the report's overly-dispassionate writing style), Olive was told he needed to have a business license. But neither nonprofits nor churches have traditionally been required to have business licenses in Lake Worth.

What followed has been described as unconstitutional, an attack on Christians, an affront on religious liberty, and, according to Fox News, which seems to really like comparisons to Soviet Russia, "like the plot of a Cold War spy novel."

But it wasn't just Common Ground that got notices of compliance. Several other churches received the same letter Olive did, spurring religious law firm Liberty Counsel to get involved, which has added some legal firepower to the local tussle.

So is the City of Lake Worth trying to takeover churches with Stalin-like precision? Or is there just some bureaucratic mix-up?

The Lake Worth Tribune asked Lake Worth city manager Michael Bornstein what was going on. He told them it has to do with building code compliance:

"The city hasn't functioned properly in years," he said, and staff is now working hard to make sure everyone who should have a license is getting one. Houses of worship, he says, have to have a license. It's in the code.

With churches, inspections are a life/safety issue, he said.

"You can't allow things to exist in a well-run, healthy city if structures are unsafe."

And them, for some reason, the Tribune asked what Bornstein's religious background is:

When asked what his religion is or if he attends a house of worship, Bornstein declined to answer.

"It's irrelevant in this capacity working for the city at this level," he said.

According to Bornstein, the city's concerns are about "use and occupancy permits," which makes sure buildings are in compliance with city fire and safety codes. Here's an excerpt from William Waters, director of Lake Worth's Department of Community Sustainability:

Apparently, the City of Lake Worth doesn't trust the power of faith to make sure buildings don't fall down, which is pretty standard around the country, even in the Bible Belt.

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Ray Downs
Contact: Ray Downs

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