MORENO VALLEY, Calif. A proposed city ordinance that would ban churches and other assembly-type groups from locating in industrial zones is unfair and must be stopped, says an attorney representing several local congregations.
The issue is expected to come before the Moreno Valley council again on Dec. 11.
The city council was first poised to pass the new zoning restrictions in early October, but postponed a decision several times as city officials met with the church community.
According to the proposal, churches would be prohibited from locating in industrial zones and in residential neighborhoods unless the lot was located on a major thoroughfare. City officials maintain the industrial ban is necessary for the health and safety of the public because businesses in those zones typically use hazardous materials. The neighborhood restriction is designed to protect homeowners from excessive traffic and noise.
But church leaders say the ordinance places undue restrictions on churches and, as a result, violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Enacted in 2000, the law prohibits municipalities from placing unfair burdens on churches, except in cases of public health and safety.
"They are contending this is a compelling government interest," said William Kennedy, an attorney with the California Baptist Foundation. Kennedy said two Baptist congregations could be impacted by the decision.
"It's an absolute killer to new churches."
In addition to new churches, Kennedy said the measure could also affect churches already located within industrial parks if they would wish to expand their facilities later.
"Our position is that nothing that violates RLUIPA is acceptable," he said. "We must fight vigorously to preserve this. This is the best thing to happen to churches in 30 years."
The issue came to light in late September when Teresa Young, a member of Greater Faith Christian Fellowship, happened to read the fine print in a public notice in a local newspaper. She showed the item to church leadership, prompting them to attend a scheduled public hearing on Oct. 9, said Regina King, vice president of the church board.
"The way it was presented was very sneaky," King said, adding that she believes it was "by the grace of God" that Young happened to read the fine print.
"Who reads those?" King said.
Concerned about the possible widespread implications of the ordinance, church leaders made fliers and began contacting local clergy.
Several meetings were held, including a luncheon with the city council that drew at least 50 people, King said.
"There was no positive outcome to that, either," King said.
Calls to City Attorney Bob Herrick and a planning department spokesman were not returned.
King said city officials then called the church and asked that they arrange for a clergy meeting[CJ5] Nov. 28. Later that day they called back and asked that the meeting be exclusively with Greater Faith officials, a move that she called suspicious.
"It's not just about Greater Faith Christian Fellowship," she said. "This is about the body of Christ. It's not just Moreno Valley doing this. This is going on across the country."
"They (the city officials) keep coming back and coming back," he said. "They just don't get it. There seems to be a pattern of cities wanting to chip away at RLUIPA."
The attorney said churches provide valuable resources to the community, including working with the poor, providing counseling services and offering programs to help addicts.
Perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned out of this debate, Kennedy said, is the necessity for Christians to monitor local government meetings.
"One lady spotted this on the agenda, or it would have slipped under the radar," he said. "Simply put, we need people who will look closely at the city council agendas. Churches in all cities need to be alert to someone who acts as a watchdog of the city for things that slip in."