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CA Federal Judge Rules Against Churches: 'Less Deserving of Equal Treatment'

06-17-2020
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The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) announced on Wednesday that a San Francisco area federal court ruled that churches have no place in the dynamic downtown area of one northern California city.

The non-profit legal group reports that New Harvest Christian Fellowship has leased space along Main Street in Salinas, CA for over 25 years.

As the congregation grew, church leaders decided to look for a larger building, locating one across the street from where they'd been gathering. 

Unfortunately, the City of Salinas had a different image in mind for Main Street.

City officials imposed limitations on how the building could be used, like reserving space on the first floor for retail shops. This meant worship services and assemblies would have to meet on the second floor – an impractical provision for the church.

After realizing that the city allowed theaters and Live entertainment to operate in the downtown area without the same restrictions, New Harvest Christian Fellowship contacted PJI and a lawsuit was filed.

PJI Chief Counsel Kevin Snider said, "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." 

On May 29, Judge Susan Van Keulen of the US District Court for the Northern District of California rejected the church's case and sided with the city. 

The court's decision focused on how a church service could distract from tourism and leisure activities in the downtown area.

"Salinas' zoning policy seeks to promote a lively pedestrian-friendly street scene by clearing out street-level religious assemblies," Snider added. "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."

PJI will continue to fight for religious freedom and plans to appeal the matter to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

PJI President Brad Dacus stated, "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. 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."

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