Apparently, a church that’s been part of the downtown scene in Salinas, California, for over a quarter of a century just isn’t vibrant enough for what the city wants.
If that sounds like it’s against the law to you, a court disagrees.
A Bay Area federal court has ruled that the city of Salinas can push out the New Harvest Christian Fellowship, an evangelical assembly that’s been there for 25 years, because of the fact it wants “a pedestrian-friendly, active and vibrant Main Street,” Fox News reported.
The city’s zoning code was amended in 2006 to ban “[c]lubs, lodges, places of religious assembly, and similar assembly uses” on the first floor of buildings in the downtown area. The move had been made “to stimulate commercial activity within the City’s downtown, which had been in a state of decline.”
New Harvest, which had rented on Main Street for decades, bought a building on the same street in 2018. It requested to use the first floor for worship but was denied.
Calif. city bans church from meeting at its own property, says it doesn’t fit in downtown
The church is being forced to sell its property due to a city ordinance that prohibits houses of worship from occupying the first floor of downtown buildings.https://t.co/ZSrv7hltcK
— The Christian Post (@ChristianPost) June 22, 2020
The church, represented by the Pacific Justice Institute, said this violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, given that the city allowed theaters, post offices, nursing homes and other venues on the same street to operate under different rules.
In a news release, the Pacific Justice Institute said it “quickly recognized the preferential treatment the city was giving secular assembly uses at the same time it was blocking the church. Just a few feet away the city permitted theaters and live entertainment venues to operate without similar restrictions.”
“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,” it said.
PJI had previously won a 2010 case against the city of San Leandro, California, on behalf of the Faith Fellowship Church, according to Monterey County Weekly.
The city had proposed that New Harvest turn the ground level into a book store or some kind of retail establishment, which the church contended was a “non-starter.”
According to the church leaders, the second floor’s ceilings made it inappropriate for worship.
The area New Harvest rents only has enough room for 165 people, whereas the church would have room for 289 if it were allowed to open up the rest of the space in the building.
Since the building is empty, the church also doesn’t apply for a property tax exemption, according to the lawsuit.
This is conspiring to make the church sell the property, according to The Christian Post.
Nevertheless, U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen ruled for Salinas, saying the church takes away from the city’s goal of creating “vibrancy” and a “street of fun.”
“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,” PJI President Brad Dacus said.
“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 chief counsel Kevin Snider, meanwhile, pointed out a great irony with how the city is treating the church.
“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,” Snider, the lead attorney in the case, said.
“Salinas’ zoning policy seeks to promote a lively pedestrian-friendly street scene by clearing out street-level religious assemblies. Since the lower court’s decision, ironically downtown Salinas has experienced a lively pedestrian street scene in the form of protests. Those types of assemblies may not be the fun City officials were hoping for to replace churches.”
And, indeed, the protests were very vibrant — so vibrant that a parolee was arrested for trying to start a fire with a Molotov cocktail, according to The Californian.
Disregarding that, however, the fact that the town sees fit to treat churches as if they’re not “vibrant” or “fun” while nursing homes and post offices are is a curious thing, particularly given the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
The judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit have a chance to uphold the law when this case comes before them.
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