Calif. Catholic School Wins $1.1 Million for Religious Violation

A federal jury ruled that the city of San Diego, Calif., violated the religious rights of a Catholic school by denying it a permit for a modernization plan, awarding the faith-based institution more than $1.1 million.

In a trial before U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo, the jury on Friday determined that the city broke federal law when some councilmembers refused to approve Academy of Our Lady of Peace's modernization plan, which had been approved by the city planning commission.

Dan Dalton, an allied attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom who represents the school, called the city council's act "illegal interference from politicians who won't place students first."

"It's irresponsible for city officials to abuse city zoning restrictions to shut down a religious school's ability to serve its students," Dalton said in a statement issued by Alliance Defending Freedom, an alliance-building legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.

The high school, the oldest in San Diego, submitted a plan to the city in May 2007 to build a new classroom building and parking structure on its own land. But some local residents opposed the plan, claiming that three homes on the school's land that would be removed to make way for the new buildings were historic and could not be destroyed.

The San Diego Developmental Service Department unanimously approved a conditional use permit for the school in October 2008, citing 24,000 similarly styled homes that existed in the North Park community. The opponents then appealed the decision to the city council, which reversed that decision in 2009.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said in a statement, "This was not a conflict over the law, but over the City Council's exercise of its discretion... As it turns out the jury in this case agree with the Planning Commission and disagreed with the City Council."

The school filed its suit, Academy of Our Lady of Peace v. City of San Diego, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California in May 2009. The lawsuit stated that the city violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects faith-based organizations in land use disputes. The lawsuit also cited both federal and state constitutional violations.

"There's no justification for treating schools dedicated to serving the community in this way, but it's also illegal and unconstitutional," Dalton said. "The jury made the right call in putting a stop to the injustice that occurred here and in sending a clear message to any city that allows such a violation of constitutionally protected freedoms to occur."

The city council hasn't said if it will appeal the jury's verdict.