Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Court scolds city for 'hostility' toward church:Federal judge finds fault with planners seeking to zone out house of worship

A federal court has taken the unusual step of criticizing San Diego for its "outright hostility" toward a local church and its failure to consider "relevant federal law."The dispute arose when Grace Church of North County approached officials with a plan to lease space in the same complex where a pair of religious institutions earlier operated.It was too much for city officials. First, the Rancho Bernardo community planning board tried to deny Grace Church a 10-year permit for the property. A San Diego city officer, however, approved a seven-year permit, compelling the board to appeal.Though community planners knew Grace Church needed 10 years to complete a long-term relocation plan, they whittled the permit down to five years, and made it non-renewable."These things have a tendency to become quasi-permanent," warned a former planning board chair, "that's why we're kind of opposed."City officials and neighboring businessmen argued that a church would "change the complexion" of the area, that it would "send the wrong message to the business community" and that potential building occupants may not want "to be next to a church."The U.S. District Court of Southern California, however, sided with the church, and took exception to the planning board's behavior.The court cited the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which essentially requires governments to allow churches to operate within reason, to overrule the city's denial of the 10-year permit.Furthermore, the court stated that Grace Church had faced "decision-making that is seemingly arbitrary and pretextual." The church also had been subjected to "ignorance regarding the requirements of controlling federal law" and even "outright hostility."In Southern California's high-priced land market, such disputes are not uncommon. In 2003, an Oceanside city planner suggested a ban on churches in industrial zones. In 2002, El Cajon refused Foothills Christian Fellowship a place in the Towne Center mall until a lawsuit convinced the city to relent.The Alliance Defense Fund, a coalition of Christian attorneys who work to preserve religious liberty, supported Grace Church in the dispute."Federal law and the Constitution clearly prohibit government officials from treating religious groups the way Grace Church was treated in this case," said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Brett Harvey. "ADF will continue to fund the legal defense of churches being taken advantage of in this way."Following the victory, Grace Church said it plans to use the 10 years in the new business park location to grow the church, plan for the future and find a more permanent home.But San Diegans also got a warning from John Eastman, dean at Chapman University School of Law, who served as co-counsel in the case."The court held that San Diego officials violated federal law by denying this church a permit that would enable it to operate in its building for the full 10 years of its lease. San Diegans should be particularly concerned about the court's finding that city officials exhibited 'hostility' toward religion," he suggested.
As in the days of Noah...

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