Allied attorneys win for church
San Diego – An evangelical Christian church that filed one of the first cases under the two-year-old federal RLUIPA law won a key zoning victory Tuesday night.
Because of the lawsuit brought by Foothills Christian Fellowship, the city of El Cajon, California, amended its zoning ordinance to allow churches to locate in commercial zones without obtaining a discriminatory conditional use permit. The city will no longer have discretionary power to keep churches out of commercial zones.
With this action, El Cajon complies with the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000. Under RLUIPA, El Cajon had to show that to meet the city’s goals there were no alternatives to prohibiting churches from commercial zones. According to one attorney representing the church, the city was unable to do that.
"RLUIPA was unanimously passed by Congress to eliminate discrimination against churches in the zoning context. The discrimination suffered by Foothills Christian Fellowship is far too prevalent in cities across America. This amendment will prevent the unlawful public hearing process that has been levied against churches in the past," said Robert Tyler, lead attorney in the case.
Tyler recently started a group called California Advocates for Faith and Freedom (CalAdvocates), a public interest law firm funded and associated with the Alliance Defense Fund. Pacific Justice Institute in Northern California and Daniel Perwich of San Diego assisted as co-counsel in the El Cajon litigation.
In association with the Alliance Defense Fund, CalAdvocates provides legal assistance to churches and persons in California suffering discrimination in violation of the U.S. Constitution and federal and state law. The Alliance Defense Fund is a national religious liberties organization providing legal assistance to persons suffering illegal discrimination because of their faith. Its mission is to protect and defend traditional family values, religious freedom, and the sanctity of human life. The Alliance Defense Fund is unique because of its role in supporting the legal efforts of its allied groups through funding.
The Foothills Christian Fellowship case began in 2001 when the church filed a complaint in federal court alleging violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as violations under RLUIPA. The church sought to occupy a commercial building in downtown El Cajon. After the church had paid close to $15,000 for expenses related to the acquisition of the permit, their permit application was denied.
Because of these illegal delays, the church lost the commercial property it wanted, when the owner sold the property to a third party, and the church’s escrow was cancelled.
Under the previous zoning ordinance, a church could only locate within the city of El Cajon if that church obtained a conditional use permit. Acquiring the permit involved paying a fee and submitting documents such as architectural plans and engineering studies.
The Church officials signed the settlement, which is expected to be approved by the city on Tuesday, September 24. It will result in the city paying the church $125,000.
El Cajon’s zoning ordinance will no longer discriminate against churches by requiring an unconstitutional conditional use permit.