ROCHESTER — Can a city regulate what kind of services a church offers to the vulnerable people in its midst?
That question lies at the heart of a legal battle between the city of Rochester and SOS Recovery Community Organization, which operates out of the First Congregational Church on South Main Street.
Attorneys for the church and SOS Recovery filed a petition last week in Strafford County Superior Court seeking to bar Rochester from requiring SOS to file a “change of use” application with city planners.
City officials contend that because SOS Recovery, a program of Goodwin Community Health, is a secular organization, its activities — recovery coaching, art and music therapy, group meetings and trainings — are not covered under the church’s existing use as a “house of worship.”
“They’re not a church,” Terence O’Rourke, the Rochester city attorney, told the Sunday News on Friday. “They are using a portion of a building which happens to be a church, but what they’re doing is not a religious service.”
But Daniel Harkinson, an attorney for First Congregational, the oldest church in this city, said allowing SOS Recovery to use the facilities is part of the church’s mission to serve the needy in its community.
Harkinson noted the church has hosted 12-step meetings for years, and it also shares its space with the Dover Adult Learning Center, which offers literacy classes and job training.
The trouble began last year after some city residents submitted a petition to the City Council, claiming that SOS’ presence at the church was attracting drug use and other criminal activity to the area.
That is not true, Harkinson said. “We’re not a place where people are coming to use drugs. People use drugs all over New Hampshire,” he said. “We’re trying to assist those who are seeking recovery services by sharing space with SOS.”
SOS has been operating out of the church for two years, according to John Burns, director of SOS Recovery. The City Council last year voted to reject the citizen petition complaining about SOS’ adverse effect on the neighborhood. But two days later, a team from a variety of city departments showed up unannounced to inspect the facility, Burns said.
And shortly thereafter, SOS was notified it would have to file for a change of use. “We immediately balked at that, as did the church,” Burns said.
He contends the city’s actions violate First Congregational’s constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. “They’ve always had social services here, to serve the vulnerable and the marginal,” he said. “Although our organization might be secular, it does not mean that what we’re doing is necessarily secular in the eyes of the church. They want to do that work.”
“To me this is stigma and discrimination, and it’s really that simple,” he said.
Last September, the city posted a cease-and-desist order on the property, demanding that SOS Recovery file what’s called a “minor site plan application.” When SOS failed to do so, the city filed a petition in District Court against SOS Recovery in December, seeking $23,650 in civil penalties.
The suggestion that having SOS Recovery share space in the church encourages drug use is “absurd,” Burns said. “Frankly, there was drug use in this area long before we were here, and that’s why we’re here,” he said. “Generally if somebody is coming here who is actively using, it’s because they’re looking for help, and we’re happy to provide it.”
City Attorney O’Rourke said SOS Recovery does not have to move out of the church. “They just need to file the correct paperwork and go through the correct approval process,” he said.
O’Rourke said SOS can file an application for either a “medical office” or community center use, which are both permitted uses in that area of the city. Once the application is filed, the city would have 60 days to approve or disapprove it, he said. “It’s a permitted use, so it should not be a big deal,” O’Rourke said.
Harkinson is a Rochester native and has been a member of the church for more than 50 years. Allowing SOS to provide recovery services is “a very important part of our ministry,” he said.
“That’s what we’re supposed to be doing, as we see it,” he said. “This is the same thing we have been doing for years.”
In the court documents filed last week, lawyers for First Congregational Church and SOS wrote that the church, “in following the examples and teachings of Jesus Christ, promoting loving service to Rochester and the larger community, speaking faithfully to the issues of the day, and striving for righteousness, justice and peace,” has allowed a variety of nonprofit groups to share and use its building for decades. That includes Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Heroin Anonymous as well as Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and Taking Off Pounds Sensibly.
SOS does not pay rent for the office and meeting space it uses; it does pay the church for the costs of janitorial services, Harkinson said.
Burns said it was church members who invited SOS to share its space when they heard about the work it was doing. “The church opened their doors to us,” he said. And he said “the church has bent over backwards” to accommodate his group’s needs for space ever since.
O’Rourke said SOS Recovery never sought city approval to operate out of the church. And he said until the residents’ petition came up, city officials were unaware that SOS was a separate organization, with another location in a commercial building in Dover. “We had no idea. We thought it was just a function of the church,” he said.
But Burns said SOS Recovery’s presence at the Rochester church is “no big secret.”
“Everybody knew we were operating here,” he said.
Last year, he said, the Rochester City Council voted to award SOS $25,000 from general funds and $5,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding for its work in the city.
In a statement, Eliza Tweedy, pastor of First Congregational Church, said her church has a long history of partnering with local organization, to fulfill its mission “to feed the hungry, shelter the unsheltered, and care for the marginalized.”
She said Rochester has “singled out” SOS Recovery while ignoring similar services that operate out of her church and other churches. And, she said, “First Church feels the city is infringing on our freedom to exercise our religion by serving the most vulnerable communities through this important partnership.”
Burns said the legal dispute has been “unnerving” for some of his group’s members. “At the end of the day, all I want to do is provide the services we’re doing and focus on SOS becoming a more sustainable organization,” he said.
“My goal would be somebody comes to their senses, and we figure out a way around this,” he said. “I don’t think anybody wins with long, drawn-out legal battles.”
Burns said he’s not a member of any church, although he follows Buddhist practices. “My religion is compassion,” he said.