Pacific Justice Institute Appeals Court Decision Allowing Calif. City to Restrict Downtown Churches

NRB | July 9, 2020 | Member News

Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) is appealing the decision of a federal court in the San Francisco Bay Area that determined churches do not contribute to a vibrant and fun atmosphere and therefore may be excluded from Salinas’ downtown area.

“This continues to be one of the most striking examples of unequal treatment of a church in the land use context that we have seen in the past 20 years,” stated Brad Dacus, President of PJI, in a press release. “We have appealed this case to the Ninth Circuit, and we are optimistic that a different result will be reached upon review by a higher court.”

PJI is representing New Harvest Christian Fellowship, which two years ago bought a building on Main Street in Salinas after having rented space along the street for more than 25 years. The church’s growing congregation prompted leaders to recognize several years ago that the church needed a larger facility, so when the larger building across the street went up for sale, the church seized the opportunity and bought it.

The city, however, had a different vision for Main Street. It demanded sharp restrictions on the building’s use such as worship and assemblies only on the second floor, and dedication of retail space on the ground floor to an extent that proved unworkable for the church.

When the church contacted PJI, the legal defense organization quickly recognized that the city was giving preferential treatment for secular assembly uses and at the same time blocking the church. Just a few feet away, the city permitted theaters and live entertainment venues to operate without similar restrictions.

“Salinas deems churches as less deserving of equal treatment under the law than the live children’s theatre, two cinemas, and event center that share the City’s downtown corridor with New Harvest Fellowship,” observed PJI Chief Counsel Kevin Snider, who is the lead attorney in this case.

When PJI pointed the city to the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which PJI has successfully litigated for many years, the city refused to budge and PJI filed suit.

On May 29, U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Van Keulen of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued a surprising decision siding with the city. The court determined that churches generate limited interest, do not draw tourists, and therefore detract from the city’s goals of vibrancy. The court further believed a city is justified in promoting a “street of fun” that excludes churches at the same time it allows even larger concert and entertainment venues.

PJI pointed out that the city’s insistence that it must have only fun, tourist-friendly, and tax-generating entities downtown was undermined by its allowance of nursing homes and post offices. The court waved off this discrepancy.

The case now heads to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which ruled on a similar case in 2011 involving another church that was represented by PJI. In that case, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the city of San Leandro illegally discriminated against Faith Fellowship Foursquare Church by not allowing it to use its own property for worship services.

Notably, decisions from the Ninth Circuit are binding on federal courts in California, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Alaska, Hawaii, and U.S. Territories in the Pacific. The court’s decisions are often followed by courts in other parts of the country, as well.

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