Calif. city bans church from meeting at its own property, says it doesn't fit in downtown

New Harvest Christian Fellowship purchased the Beverly Fabrics building in downtown Salinas but was not able to host worship services due to city zoning regulations. | Courtesy of Pacific Justice Institute

A California evangelical church is being forced to sell its property due to a city ordinance that prohibits houses of worship from occupying the first floor of downtown buildings.

A federal court in the San Francisco Bay Area recently sided with the city of Salinas, ruling that churches generate limited interest, do not draw tourists, and therefore detract from the city's goals of vibrancy, said the Pacific Justice Institute, which filed a lawsuit on behalf of New Harvest Christian Fellowship.

"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," PJI added, noting that while the church is banned from gathering, the city is allowing theaters and live entertainment venues to operate, as well as non-entertainment businesses.

Federal magistrate judge Susan Van Keulen said on May 29 that the city of Salinas did not violate the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects houses of worship from discrimination in zoning laws, because Salinas' rule is aimed at "[stimulating] commercial activity within the city's downtown, which had been in a state of decline, and to establish a pedestrian-friendly, active and vibrant Main Street."

"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," PJI President Brad Dacus commented.

"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 PJI Chief Counsel Kevin Snider, the lead attorney in the case. He argued that the zoning policy seeks to promote a lively pedestrian-friendly street scene by clearing out street-level religious assemblies."

"Since the lower court's decision, ironically downtown Salinas has experienced a lively pedestrian street scene in the form of protests. Those types of assemblies may not be the fun city officials were hoping for, to replace churches," Snider added. 

PJI also pointed out that while the city insists it must have only fun, tourist-friendly and tax-generating entities downtown, it has allowed nursing homes and post offices to operate in the area. However, the court waved off "this discrepancy," PJI said.

New Harvest Christian Fellowship, which has rented space along Main Street in Salinas for more than 25 years, bought the building in early 2018 because its congregation outgrew a previously rented space.

In 2010, PJI won a similar case, on behalf of Faith Fellowship Church, and the city of San Leandro was asked for a $2.3 million payout, according to Monterey County Weekly.

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