‘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…’
(Joshua Paladino, Liberty Headlines) Salinas, California has successfully blocked a Christian church from opening in a downtown building after a federal judge ruled that the church would hamper the city’s goal of creating a “street of fun.”
In the lawsuit, the Pacific Justice Institute said that the Salinas City Council’s “vibrancy plan” uses zoning rules to label downtown churches as “blight.”
PJI said Salinas’s zoning laws violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits governments from imposing substantial burdens on religious exercise, PJI reported.
Judge Susan Van Keulen, who sits on the District Court for the Northern District of California, said the city government has a compelling interest in preventing the church from operating downtown since it does not attract tourists or residents.
PJI said the Salinas City Council is not following its own vibrancy plans, since it allows a post office and a nursing home to open downtown.
“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 Kevin Snider, PJI’s Chief Counsel who is the lead attorney in this case.
New Harvest Christian Fellowship has shared the Gospel in downtown Salinas for 25 years, and the church outgrew its downtown rental space a few years ago.
The church told Salinas in 2017 that it planned to buy a new building that is across the street from its current location. The church bought the building in 2018.
The Salinas government said New Harvest Christian Fellowship must have church services on the second floor and that the first floor must be dedicated retail space so that the city can pocket the tax revenue.
Next-door venues use their first-floor space for entertainment purposes.
“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 Brad Dacus, president of PJI. “We have appealed this case to the Ninth Circuit, and we are optimistic that a different result will be reached upon review by a higher court.”