Federal court: City treated church with 'outright hostility'

A church in a San Diego suburb has asked a federal judge to extend its operating permits to 10 years after it won a land-use lawsuit in which the court accused city officials of "outright hostility" toward the congregation.

Mark Lauterbach, pastor of Grace Church, said a judge is expected to rule on the length of the permit in the coming weeks.

"We knew there was a (permit) process, and we were committed to that process," Lauterbach said. "We had no idea we would run into the obstacles that we did."

In May, U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Huff chided the city of San Diego and two planning groups for their attempts to thwart Grace's application for a 10-year conditional use permit for a vacant warehouse on Via Frontera. Because churches are considered a non-complying use for most zoning designations, congregations across the nation must seek CUPs that allow them to assemble within a community.

"Grace Church experienced outright hostility to its application, decision-making that is seemingly arbitrary or pre-textual, and ignorance regarding the requirements of controlling federal law regarding the application of land-use laws to religious institutions," Huff wrote in her opinion.

Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund, which represented Grace Church, said city and planning officials denied the 10-year-request, offering just seven years. The Planning Commission later dropped that to five years.

"Frequently during the mandatory CUP process established by defendants, Grace Church experienced hostility to its application and was admonished not to return in five years for an extension," the judge wrote.

John Eastman, dean at Chapman University School of Law and co- counsel for the case, successfully argued that the city's stand violated the eight-year-old Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. That law prohibits municipalities from creating burdensome zoning restrictions against houses of worship. Prior to the law, cities would often use zoning codes to block churches from prime properties because, as nonprofits, they do not pay property tax or generate revenue from sales tax.

"Churches shouldn't be unfairly burdened by a city's zoning restrictions simply to be able to exercise their religion," said Eastman, an affiliate attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, which accepted the case pro bono. "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."

Lauterbach said the protracted process caused a significant drain of the church's resources since they paid rent on the empty warehouse for 18 months before they were finally allowed to move in last November.

"This is part of the challenge of building a church in San Diego," Lauterbach said. "If we lost (the case), it would have had significant impact to the church."

The pastor said about 4,000 hours of volunteer time was spent readying the warehouse for the church and dealing with the city permit issues.

"God is very faithful," he said. "He supplied for us. I look around us, I look around the congregation, and I am amazed where we are."