NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The city of Chattanooga asked the local courts Wednesday for an order to shut down a church-run youth nightclub where nine people were wounded in a shooting on Christmas morning.
The complaint filed in circuit court states that Chattanooga police have responded to at least 19 assault calls involving Club Fathom over the past five years, including a statutory rape and two other shootings. The club is operated by the downtown Mosaic church as part of its outreach ministry.
The complaint asks for a restraining order to prevent a planned New Year's Eve concert and "any other occasion to create a public nuisance." It is unclear how an injunction would affect church services and other events at the space that are not part of Club Fathom.
A church official could not immediately be reached for comment on the city's action.
Asked on Wednesday whether the city was seeking to padlock the building and prevent all activities there or only to stop the Saturday night concerts, Deputy City Attorney Phil Noblett said that would be up to the judge.
"There is some issue about church activities taking place there. Perhaps he will allow them during certain hours," Noblett said.
Speaking of Club Fathom, he said, "I don't know if these events constitute church events."
A message left for pastor Tim Reid on Wednesday afternoon was not returned. A posted response on the church's Facebook page about the Christmas shootings defends Club Fathom as a ministry that attempts to "reach, save and mentor gang members of inner city Chattanooga."
Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center, said it's not the government's job to determine whether the youth nightclub is a legitimate ministry.
"If the church says 'This is our ministry' then it's probably good enough for the courts," he said.
Haynes said that doesn't mean the city has no right to shut it down, however. To do that, Haynes said, the city likely would have to prove that it has a compelling reason to close the ministry — to maintain public safety, for instance — and that there is no other way to prevent the violence city officials claim is associated with the club.
The Mosaic church and Club Fathom have a history of conflicts with the city. Chattanooga officials have said the church does not do enough to prevent violent incidents among club patrons. The injunction sought by city officials does not seek to shut down a concert planned for Friday night.
In a 2009 video interview in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Reid accused Mayor Ron Littlefield of "unconscious racism" for targeting events that bring black youth to a tourist area on Saturday nights.
"We have more white people on Friday nights and more African-Americans on Saturdays, and he has been focusing on and challenging our Saturday nights," Reid said.
A court hearing on the injunction request is scheduled for Friday morning.