In a compromise that left both sides happy, a judge Friday declined to penalize a pastor convicted of breaking zoning laws by housing the homeless.
Rather than punish the Rev. Wiley Drake, the judge put the pastor’s First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, located in a commercial zone near Disneyland, on probation for three years.
That means if the church doesn’t comply with city codes, the judge ultimately could send in marshals to kick the homeless people out.
“It is a shame in this day and age that a case like this ends up in our criminal courts,” Orange County Municipal Court Judge Gregg L. Prickett said.
Drake, a 53-year-old former Texas preacher, last summer spearheaded the Southern Baptist Convention’s boycott of the Walt Disney Co.
He was convicted in July of violating city zoning codes by allowing the homeless to camp out in vehicles at his church’s parking lot. He also put up cots to let people sleep in an enclosed patio while using the space to store food and clothing, which the city considered a hazard.
Drake and his followers had accused the city of religious persecution; the local authorities had claimed the preacher obfuscated and stalled on even minor requests to work with them.
Homeless people and church members packed the 41-seat courtroom and lined up outside in the hall, where Drake led them in prayer. Some shouted “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” after the sentence was read.
Prickett sentenced Drake to 1,500 hours of community service and immediately gave him credit for serving it. He even waived a mandatory $100 contribution to the state restitution fund for crime victims when Drake’s lawyer said the church was too poor to pay.
But the judge did tell the pastor that although society must take care of its unfortunate members, secular authorities have the right to step in on issues of health and safety.
Drake afterward said he wouldn’t evict any of the 70 people still staying at the church but is trying to find rooms for them.
“I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing right now,” Drake said. “I’m not going to change.”
Prosecutor Gregory Palmer had requested five years probation for pastor and church, but no fine or jail time.
“All we’ve ever asked for is that they comply with the law like everybody else,” he said after the sentence. “… But it’s a nice compromise.”