Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) announced that on April 9th its client, the Gutay Christian Fellowship Church, finally won its six-year litigation battle with the County of San Diego. The ruling forced a reversal of the County’s action in zoning the church property “many years ago–and unknown to the church–as a country-western bar.”
The County had been accruing civil and criminal penalties of $2,500 a day against the rural community church that racked up to the preposterous amount of $5,475,000. PJI affiliate attorney Pete Lepiscopo said: “We’re extremely pleased with this positive outcome.” PJI President Brad Dacus, from his offices at Trinity Law School in Santa Ana simply added, “Our nation needs more churches, and governments not standing in their way.”
Gutay is an unincorporated mountain community located at 3,999 feet in the Mountain Empire area of southeastern San Diego County. Other than the rural post office for the 91931 zip code, the church was the rural community’s prime attraction.
The Christian Fellowship had been renting the same location for almost 25 years before San Diego County suddenly decided that it was improperly zoned and ordered the church to shut down immediately. In order to continue operating, the County demanded that the church obtain what is referred to as a Major Use Permit–something that would have cost them close to $500,000 to obtain. It seemed that the county’s action was an effort to turn the tax-exempt church into a high tax-generating commercial facility.
The Christian Fellowship was banned by the County from operating until Pacific Justice Institute, which provides free legal representation in defense of religious rights, litigated a preliminary injunction against the County’s “cease and desist order.” During oral arguments, District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller was reportedly so appalled by the legal facts and history of the case he called the County’s actions “draconian.
The County of San Diego finally relented and instructed staff to make an administrative “convenience” granting the Gutay Christian Fellowship Church a “Minor Deviation” to the County zoning plan that will now allow the property to operate indefinitely as a community house of worship.
PJI affiliate attorney Pete Lepiscopo of the San Diego law firm, Lepiscopo & Associates, who represented the church, said: “The faith and courage exhibited by Pastor Peterson and the congregation over six years have provided an example to other pastors and churches, much like David’s faith and courage when facing Goliath in these matters.”