The city of Salinas, California, is forcing an evangelical Christian church to sell its downtown property, saying it does not fit in with the new look of the town.
New Harvest Christian Fellowship bought the building in early 2018 after its congregation outgrew a space the church had been renting for more than 25 years. A new city ordinance, however, prohibits houses of worship from occupying the first floor of downtown buildings, the Christian Post reports.
The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) filed a lawsuit on behalf of the church, arguing that the City’s zoning code and denial of New Harvest’s proposed use of its property “treat New Harvest on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies and substantially burden religious exercise, in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).”
A northern California U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the city of Salinas, declaring on May 29 that churches generate limited interest, do not draw tourists, and therefore detract from the city’s stated goals.
According to the City, the purpose of its land use ordinance is “to stimulate commercial activity within the City’s downtown, which had been in a state of decline, and to establish a pedestrian-friendly, active and vibrant Main Street.”
The Court noted that New Harvest’s weekly schedule of activities “includes a Sunday morning worship service (including a worship band) and programs for children and teens/tweens; a Tuesday evening worship service, ‘Fun Club’ for children ages 3-4, and boys’ ministries (which alternate weekly between two different age groups); a Thursday evening worship band rehearsal; a Friday evening prayer meeting; and a women’s Bible study on some Saturday mornings.”
Some might suggest that the Court’s description of the church’s program is the very definition of “active and vibrant.”
Federal magistrate judge Susan Van Keulen ruled, however, that the city of Salinas did not violate RLUIPA because the City’s zoning restrictions do not impose a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of New Harvest.
In response to the court’s decision, PJI has appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit, declaring it is “optimistic that a different result will be reached upon review by a higher court,” since while the church is prohibited from gathering, the city is allowing secular theaters and live entertainment venues to operate.
“This continues to be one of the most striking examples of unequal treatment of a church in the land use context that we have seen in the past 20 years,” said PJI President Brad Dacus.
“Salinas deems churches as less deserving of equal treatment under the law than the live children’s theatre, two cinemas, and event center that share the city’s downtown corridor with New Harvest Fellowship,” said PJI Chief Counsel Kevin Snider, the lead attorney in the case.
PJI also noted that while the city insists it must have only fun, tourist-friendly, tax-generating entities downtown, it has allowed nursing homes and post offices to operate in the area.