Harbor Missionary Church is suing the City of San Buenaventura, California under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) over the City’s refusal to allow it to continue providing free food and other services to the poor and homeless. Representing the Church in Harbor Missionary Church Corporation v. City of San Buenaventura, No. 2:14-cv-03730 (Dist. California 2014), are students from the Stanford Law School Religious Liberty Clinic.
The Church alleges that since 2007 it has hosted gatherings five days a week to provide the needy with meals, clothing, showers, laundry services, Christian teaching, and fellowship. The Church purchased the subject property from a Quaker congregation in 2004. It believed that a conditional use permit for communal worship and day care services issued to the Quakers allowed the Church to provide its religious ministry from the property, because under California law, conditional use permits run with the land.
In 2012, however, the City informed the Church that it had to obtain a separate conditional use permit to continue its ministry. When the Church applied for the permit, City staff recommended that the planning commission grant the application, but the commission instead instructed staff to return with “new findings” to support a denial. On November 13, 2013, the planning commission denied the application and failed to apply RLUIPA’s heightened scrutiny because it deemed the Church’s ministry a “secular land use,” likening it to laundromats and fast food places. The planning commission also refused to consider approving the application subject to certain conditions, despite staff’s recommendation that it do so. An appeal to the City Council resulted in a 2-2 deadlock, upholding the planning commission’s denial.
On May 14, 2014, the Church sued the City in federal court, alleging that the denial of its application for a conditional use permit violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
In denying Harbor a conditional use permit, the City substantially burdens Harbor’s religious exercise. The church is forbidden from caring for the poor, as mandated by its faith and millennia of Christian tradition. Due to its modest financial resources, Harbor is unable to relocate at this point. In short, denial is tantamount to quashing Harbor’s ministry. This burden is substantial.
The Church alleges that the denial of the permit forces it to end its ministry under the threat of criminal penalty because it could be subject to monetary fines and imprisonment under the City’s code and, as such, “it must obey either the City’s command or Christ’s.” According to the Church, the threat of criminal sanction, the time and expense required to move to another location, and the church’s “humble financial condition” constitute a substantial burden because (1) they leave it with “no ready alternatives” and (2) any potential alternatives “require substantial delay, uncertainty, or expense,” including finding and funding a new building, navigating the permitting process, remodeling the building, and moving costs.
We previously reported on another RLUIPA suit involving a church operating a soup kitchen.