Lake Elsinore to pay $1.2 million in church suit


LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. — The city of Lake Elsinore will pay $1.2 million to Elsinore Christian Center to settle a seven-year legal battle over the church's plan to locate within a blighted commercial zone.

The case is one of the first in the nation filed in response to the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, enacted the same year the church first proposed moving to the new site.

"Elsinore Christian Center stands as a great example nationally to religious organizations and churches that significant protection against religious discrimination by zoning and municipal officials is available," Robert Tyler, the church's attorney, said. "Churches across the country collectively spend millions of dollars every year trying to get discretionary land use permits only to be rejected by the discriminatory and subjective whims of zoning officials—a quandary that has now met its match."    

Tyler is general counsel and founder of Advocates for Faith and Freedom, a national nonprofit law firm that works to protect religious liberty.

The federal law was implemented to protect churches from discrimination based on their tax-exempt status. Because churches don't typically fit within established zoning requirements such as commercial, retail or industrial, most municipalities require them to secure a conditional use permit to locate in a community.

As churches have grown larger, many sought prime locations in commercial or industrial locations, prompting cities to use the CUP process to block church relocation plans, in an effort to save those spaces for tax-generating uses.

RLUIPA, however, tapped on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to develop a policy that prohibits municipalities from using land use regulations such as zoning ordinances to place a substantial burden on religious institutions—unless it has a compelling state interest to do so and the city uses the least restrictive means possible in furtherance of that compelling interest.

 The site chosen by the church was located in an area designated for redevelopment.

"We argued to the City Council that our church would not only help bring people into the blighted area of the city and generate sales tax in neighboring retail businesses, but we would help to bring spiritual revival to a depressed area," Pastor Jim Hilbrant said in a news release.

Ending the battle
The city agreed to settle the case July 18 after losing a ruling in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The city had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the matter, but settled before the high court responded.

In the Aug. 22 circuit court ruling, the judges unanimously reversed the conclusion of a district court that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, protecting churches in land use and zoning matters, is unconstitutional. Although it ruled the law unconstitutional, the district court did find the city violated the language of the law.

"Churches should not be singled out for discrimination," Tim Chandler, legal counsel with ADF, said in a statement. "Federal law ensures that churches receive fair and equal treatment in zoning matters. The 9th Circuit was right to ensure these protections remain in place, and we're pleased that the city of Lake Elsinore decided to give up and settle this case."

In addition to Advocates for Faith and Freedom, the legal groups The Beckett Fund, Pacific Justice Institute and Alliance Defense Fund, assisted in the case.

Similar case in Northern California
The Southern California case is winding down just as a church outside Oakland filed a similar suit against the city of San Leandro. Filed on July 12, Faith Fellowship Foursquare Church alleges the city discriminated against it by refusing to allow it to use a building it purchased. The church, and its denomination, are represented by Pacific Justice Institute and Peter MacDonald of Pleasanton.

The church, which purchased a building in an industrial area to relocate from a ministry-constricting neighborhood, has spent more than14 months and complied with numerous requirements from the city, to no avail. It also alleges that San Leandro allows entertainment and recreational groups to use land in industrial areas.

According to its attorney's Faith Fellowship now pays $1,100 per day for a building it cannot use. 

"The decision to file suit was not taken lightly," PJI Chief Counsel Kevin Snider, who is spearheading the litigation, said in a news release.  "Faith Fellowship filed suit only after its leaders, including the denominational leaders, concluded that this was the only avenue still available to be allowed to use its site."