Pottstown Borough Tries to Stop Work of Church

Monday, December 26th, 2022

Logo for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania

"If this issue goes to the highest court in land, we will go there. We follow Jesus, and his command to us is ‘be not afraid.’”

Bishop Daniel G.P. Gutiérrez


Contact Local Officials

Background on issue is below. Please make a polite phone call (preferable) or email to the following elected officials in Pottstown and let them know:

For 200 years, Christ Episcopal Church in Pottstown has tried to carry out Jesus’ message of loving their neighbor. Pottstown officials are trying to restrict outreach to people living on the margins. This is a violation of First Amendment rights. We follow Jesus Christ and will not be dissuaded.

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For 200 years, Christ Episcopal Church (CEC) in Pottstown has tried to carry out Jesus’ message of loving their neighbor. This summer, CEC and other churches in Pottstown were threatened with legal action and told by borough officials that feeding the poor, providing counseling and free toiletries was outside the realm of what churches do. Last week, Pottstown officials went a step further and shut down an overnight shelter operating inside another church. Faith groups believe this is a concerted effort to push out people living on the margins and is a violation of their First Amendment rights. (See latest letter from the diocese here.)

“I am profoundly disappointed by the Borough of Pottstown,” said the Rt. Rev. Daniel Gutiérrez, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania which comprises 136 churches in five counties. “We have faithfully served our siblings in this community for 200 years. Now, their actions attempt to prevent Christians from living their faith.”

“Even more painful is their apparent desire to deny citizens the basics of our common humanity: food, shelter, clothes, and dignity. We will not be dissuaded; we will continue to live into our call as followers of Jesus Christ. Our faith compels us to reach out to people in need. We will not leave anyone behind.   For us, it not about optics or the next election.  It is about not abandoning those who are cold, hungry or lost.”   

In 2020, the poverty rate of Pottstown (15.3%) was already higher than the national average.[i] COVID-19 increased the number of people at risk of falling into poverty. During the pandemic, the rise of unemployment in Pennsylvania increased food insecurity as well. According to a Penn State study, Pennsylvania food insecurity rates increased from 11.1% in 2018 to over 33% in March 2020. … not surprisingly, the low-income will constitute the majority of those affected.” [ii]

Programs at CEC and other local churches provide relief to the working poor as well as those who are unsheltered.  “We have always been part of the solution,” said the Rev. Joshua Caler, rector of Christ Episcopal Church. “We meet people where they are in life and share the hope of Jesus. Government is telling us, in effect, that we need their permission to serve our community in the way our faith requires and in ways we have for generations in Pottstown. We are not a government organization. We are followers of Jesus Christ.”  


Timeline of Events

  • 6/10/22: Two churches in Pottstown, Christ Episcopal Church (CEC) and Mission First, receive letters from the Pottstown Borough telling them that their mental health counseling, providing toiletries and weekly meals for those in need “violate the zoning code’s definition of ‘church.’”  The Borough threatened legal action if the activities did not cease, or if an appeal was not filed.
  • 7/08/22: CEC, with the full support of The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, appealed this noting that “these activities are part of the religious mission of the Church and constitute the free exercise of religion. …  the Borough is required to prove that there a compelling governmental interest in prohibiting the religious activities in question …in fact, these activities address specific needs in the community, and if anything advances the public interest by helping those in need.” Further the appeal notes that “the uses cited … constitute part of the religious mission and free exercise of religion of the Church, and as such are fundamental rights that are protected by the First Amendment of the United Sates Constitution, the Pennsylvania Constitution, the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), and Pennsylvania’s Religious Freedom Protection Act (“RFPA”).”
  • 8/04/22: CEC representatives meet with Borough representatives to describe the activities being questioned by the Borough.
  • 9/01/2022:  The Borough Zoning Officer issues a letter withdrawing the 6/10 zoning violation notice.
  • 11/30/22: Borough officials issue a cease and desist order to Beacon of Hope to close The Warming Center’s doors— the same night the county declared a “Code Blue” cold weather emergency. This was after Beacon of Hope filed for a special permit to operate, per regulation. The nonprofit closed the shelter on 12/9, and asked 24 unhoused people to leave the church. The nonprofit continues operations while the appeal process is underway.
  • 12/6/22: Borough officials send a letter to CEC requesting that the Church provide “notification” to the Borough of any other “additional uses” it plans in the future. CEC is asked to withdraw the zoning appeal it had filed to avoid the threatened legal action.
  • 12/22/22: Attorneys for CEC and the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania send a letter to Borough officials stating that “while the Church is willing to participate in ongoing mutual communication and dialogue we do not think it would be practical or productive to provide ‘notification’ each time there are any additional uses or changes in the Church’s ministry or religious mission.”  

“The borough is now trying to force us to tell them the exact days and times when people of need will be in our churches,” said Gutiérrez. “If this issue goes to the highest court in land, we will go there. We follow Jesus, and his command to us is ‘be not afraid.’” The diocese is asking all to politely contact the Pottstown zoning official Winter Stokes, 610-970-6508 and wstokes@pottstown.org, to let them know that this is wrong. 



[i] Data USA: https://datausa.io/profile/geo/pottstown-pa/

[ii] Penn State University: https://covid19.ssri.psu.edu/articles/food-insecurity-pennsylvania-during-covid-19-pandemic

Latest news coverage here:

• Pottstown Mercury: http://bit.ly/3C9gBdI

• NBC Channel 10: http://bit.ly/3vGvHE1

• ABC Channel 6: http://bit.ly/3vnY8pZ