(Photo: Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship)
A Calvary Chapel-affiliated church in Southern California is threatening to file a federal lawsuit against the County of Riverside over a previously unknown zoning law in the Temecula Valley Wine Country that prohibits churches from being built on the grape-growing land within the popular tourist destination.
A public hearing on the matter on Wednesday will position the Wine Country's vintners association against the church congregation and many other Christians from the area, says Advocates for Faith & Freedom, a religious liberty legal group that is defending the church.
The no-church ordinance was added to existing zoning laws by the county after Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship (otherwise known as "The Barn") in Temecula obtained a permit to remodel its church more than a decade ago, according to the church's defenders.
The church began seeking to obtain another permit to expand its church facilities and to build a small private school for grades K-8 nearly two years ago, and that is when the law prohibiting churches and their expansion in the area was discovered.
Pastor Clark Van Wick plans to make a statement on behalf of his church and more than 3,500 Christians who have written letters and signed a petition against the ordinance, citing religious freedom, at a public hearing on Wednesday. The agenda for the Riverside County Planning Commission hearing at Temecula City Hall includes discussion for the expansion of Wine Country from 7,000 acres to more than 18,990 acres.
"Trying to be a good neighbor, Pastor Clark Van Wick met with a few vintners in an attempt to appease them, but was told, 'We don't want your kind out here,'" Advocates for Faith & Freedom stated.
"Right now, in this zone, it is illegal to build churches. We did not know that until we started the process to expand our existing facility," Van Wick told The Christian Post on Tuesday. "We have been working with the county to overturn this law."
Van Wick is concerned that the county's new Wine Country plan to expand may keep the no-church ordinance in place.
Although he says Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone and Temecula city councilman Michael Naggar have been "tremendously helpful in moving the process along," Van Wick hopes the planning committee will not include the ordinance that bans churches and private schools.
"The Wine Country plan is a good plan (for expansion), but as with any plan, things fall through the cracks. It was very fortuitous for us (the church) to expand when we did because it brought all of this to light," he said.
Van Wick said he plans to ask the commission "very simply and humbly" for permission for the church to be a part the new Wine Country plan.
"Like everyone else we are asking to simply be a part of the plan – nothing special, nothing out-of-the-ordinary, just a desire to be a part of the plan," he explained. "The whole Christian community in Riverside County has been aware of this and has had a desire to get involved."
However, in order for the church to be a part of the plan, the existing zoning ordinance against churches should not carry over to the Wine Country's expansion, Van Wick said. He believes places of worship have the same right to build on the property as businesses currently do.
"We are all very interested in overturning this law. It's not just about churches. We are talking about synagogues. If the Jewish community came in and wanted to build a synagogue it would be illegal for them to do it.
"This isn't a church issue. This is a religious liberty issues that affects everybody across the board," he said. "Ultimately, our prayer is that God's perfect will be done. I think we need to be diligent and prudent, and stand up for the liberties we love in this nation. But at the same time, to be open to however God chooses to work."
On Monday, the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association released a statement in which they "urge Riverside County planners to take a cue from Napa County, which recently issued a new general plan restricting 'non-agricultural development' to already developed areas."
The association's statement also included quotes from one of the vintners.
"We've been shocked and disappointed to see how this whole land use issue has been hijacked by the Calvary expansion project," said Ray Falkner, owner of Falkner Winery, whose property is adjacent to the plots in question. "For us, it's a simple question of preserving existing vineyards and the remaining plantable acres in Temecula Valley, like they've done in Napa Valley and Sonoma. It's pretty heartbreaking to see farmers and hardworking local business owners being painted as anti-religious or anti-church simply because we're trying to prevent Temecula from turning into Rancho Cucamonga. Most of us are churchgoers ourselves, and are just blown away at some of the nasty propaganda floating around."
On the Web: http://winecountryfreedom.com/