Legal Group Sues Over Religious Zoning Discrimination

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

( - A legal defense organization has filed a potentially precedent setting lawsuit on behalf of a California church that is being denied the use of property it currently has in escrow.

The Pacific Justice Institute, a non-profit legal defense organization specializing in the defense of religious freedom, parental rights, and other civil liberties, and its affiliate attorney Robert Tyler filed a lawsuit against the City of Lake Elsinore, Calif. on behalf of the Elsinore Christian Center.

"And the church has the property in escrow. The church has been operating in good faith the whole time, and is literally having the carpet pulled out from under it in a matter that is in direct violation of federal civil rights law as well as the U.S. Constitution," said Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute.

"They (the city) denied the church use of their property after a year of the church giving in on all the demands of the city, and once they gave in to all the demands, the city said 'You know what, we don't want a church here after all,'" Dacus said.

The city made demands regarding parking limitations, he said, which the church met.

"Our client came through and met all their demands. It finally just boiled down to the fact that the city did not want a church there," Dacus said.

The city of Lake Elsinore, he said, blocked the church's zoning request because they had designs on the property for the construction of a retail establishment.

"The primary ... issue is the fact that they want more tax revenue through the form of a retail business, and that's the bottom line," he added.

Dacus believes the city is concerned that the church won't bring in as much money as a retail store would, a concept that couldn't be further from the truth.

"In actuality, the church will bring in lots of people into that area for shopping and business. The presumption that for some reason people who go to church don't buy in stores is the same kind of prejudicial bias that the Deep South has corrected about 40 years ago," he said.

Dacus said the city denied the Center the conditional use permit. The lawsuit alleges that the city violated the constitutional rights of churches, as well as the recently passed Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000.

"Because discrimination against churches through zoning is such a significant problem, Congress overwhelmingly passed RLUIPA last year," said attorney Robert Tyler.

"And that is exactly what the federal statute was made to correct, that kind of religious bias against churches and religious establishments in communities," Dacus said.

"That's why we're representing this church, and we hope that this lawsuit will actually be the first of a number of lawsuits which will reverse this growing trend of hostility and intolerance towards church growth in communities," Dacus said.

Dacus added, "Through our network of over 1,000 attorneys nationwide, we intend to hold every local government accountable to ensure that church rights are respected. As we prevail in these cases, we expect to see unparalleled growth and development of churches across America."

A spokesperson from the office of Lake Elsinore's city manager refused to comment other than to say, "There's a claim, but there is no lawsuit."