Church Lawsuit Fuels Religious-Freedom Fight
aclj.org (2001-07-18) Seth Lewis
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(CNSNews.com) - The Towne Center in El Cajon, Calif. is a mostly abandoned mall; an unlikely stage for battle over religious freedom.
But it became a battleground when 400 churchgoers descended on the downtown shopping center, protesting with prayers and song as the city council of this San Diego suburb voted to block the Foothills Christian Fellowship Church from buying and relocating to the seven-acre property.
Now the church is fighting back with a lawsuit that it promises to take to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
The fast-growing church wants to turn the mall's vacant movie theater into a 2,000-seat sanctuary, but the city wants to develop a business district and reap the tax revenues that come with it.
The ensuing struggle has put the 10-month-old Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits discriminatory zoning laws against churches, in the crosshairs of a religious-freedom debate.
As El Cajon city attorneys prepare to respond next week in U.S. District Court to a church lawsuit alleging violations of the RLUIPA, as well as violations if the 1st and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, lawyers for Foothills Christian Fellowship hope the case will shed light on what they say is a growing trend of local governments denying the zoning requests of churches.
"The nation is watching the city of El Cajon, and it will be upon their heads and reputation," said Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit legal group representing the church.
'Institutional Blind Spot'
At a time when President Bush preaches the healing power of faith-based charities, the country increasingly neglects the role churches play in solving social ills, said Foothills Pastor Mark Hoffman.
"It's an institutional blind spot that's shared by cities across America," Hoffman said. "They don't value churches."
Hoffman, who oversees a 2,500-member congregation, uses El Cajon - a city he calls the "meth-amphetamine capital of the world," - as a case study.
His church's drug recovery program is one of several social service programs in El Cajon that save the city an estimated $1.4 million a year, according to a city-mandated study.
"Cities haven't got the message yet," Hoffman said.
The Dollars and Sense of Zoning
But El Cajon city officials present a different picture. Social services aside, Foothills' Sunday-only traffic would cripple the coffers of downtown restaurants and businesses, according to the city, resulting in lost tax revenue of nearly $1 million over the next five years.
That argument prevailed when the city council voted 3-2 to bar the church from moving into the shopping center, where the church hoped to relocate its high school and offices, as well as build a roller-skating rink and youth recreation center.
The two dissenting voices in the emotionally charged vote came from Mayor Mark Lewis and Councilman Bob McClellan
, both members of Foothills Christian Fellowship.
City attorney Morgan Foley said the city's stance is hardly discriminatory because in its mission to cultivate pedestrian traffic near Main Street, it also rejected bids by "big box" retailers Home Depot and Wal-Mart to develop the vacant mall. "This is not a decision to keep [the church] out of El Cajon," Foley said.
But church lawyers argue that El Cajon is just the latest city to bully religious groups with zoning ordinances that force churches away from prime locales.
"That's analogous to the Deep South saying 50 years ago, 'Well, we'll allow blacks to go to schools, just not in our area,'" Dacus said.