We’ve been following the lawsuit filed by Harbor Missionary Church against the City of San Buenaventura, California over the City’s denial of the Church’s application for a conditional use permit to allow it to continue providing free food and other services to the poor and homeless from its property (prior post available here). In May, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted the Church’s ex parte motion for a temporary restraining order to enjoin the City from enforcing any regulation that would prevent the Church from continuing to operate the ministry from its property. After conducting an evidentiary hearing a month-and-a-half later, the District Court denied the Church’s preliminary injunction motion, and stated that its granting of the temporary restraining order was based on “the limited factual record” available at the time, under which “the balance of the equities tip[ped] slightly in favor of Harbor.”
Since 2007, the Church has hosted gatherings on its property five days a week to provide the needy with meals and other services in accordance with its Christian faith. The Church purchased the 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 at the property. When the Church applied for the permit, City staff recommended that the Planning Commission grant the application. The commission denied the application in November 2013. An appeal to the City Council resulted in a 2-2 deadlock, upholding the denial.
The Church sued under RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It alleged that the permit denial effectively forces it to terminate its religious ministry, as there are no other alternative locations from which it might operate, and that, even if such alternatives did exist, “substantial delay, uncertainty, and expense” would result. In granting the Church a temporary restraining order, the District Court found that the Church was likely to succeed on the merits of its substantial burden claim, since it was no longer able to operate its ministry, a “significant part of [its] religious expression.” Although the District Court found that the City’s denial of the application was in furtherance of a compelling government interest – public safety – it determined that the City at that point had failed to demonstrate that the denial was narrowly tailored to further that interest, as required by RLUIPA.
But just two months later, the District Court denied the Church a preliminary injunction, concluding that the Church was unlikely to succeed on the merits of its RLUIPA and Free Exercise Clause claims. In particular, it found that the City’s denial of the permit did not impose a substantial burden on its religious exercise for four reasons. First, the church was seeking a change in use and was not restricted from what it was permitted to do. The District Court observed that “the burden on religious practices is not great when the government action, in the case of the denial of a use permit, does not restrict current religious practice but rather prevents a change in religious practice.” (citing Christian Gospel Church, Inc. v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, 896 F.2d 1221, 1224 (9th Cir. 1990)). Because the Church did not provide services to the homeless from its property until 2008 – four years after it had purchased the property – its pre-2008 religious practice was not restricted. Second, the denial did not terminate the Church’s ministry; it only restricted it. The District Court rejected the Church’s assertion that the permit denial “effectively terminates the Church’s ministry,” because it merely limits the services the Church can provide to its congregants and to the public at a single location. “Notwithstanding the permit denial, Harbor can still hold religious services, prayer meetings, bible studies, and other religious functions at the Property as it did between 2004 and 2008. In other words, Harbor’s congregants, regardless of their housing status, can still come to Harbor for religious services and spiritual succor.” Third, the Court found that the Church’s religious beliefs did not obligate it to provide these services from the subject property, the Church had previously sought to locate elsewhere, and its pastor admitted that the subject property was not an appropriate location to provide such services. Finally, it determined that there were many alternative locations in the City where the Church could relocate.
Even though the District Court concluded that the City’s denial of the permit did not impose a substantial burden on the Church’s religious exercise, it still considered and found that any such burden was in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest taken in the least restrictive means possible. Specifically, the Court credited the testimony of the City’s assistant police chief regarding a substantial rise in crime directly attributable to the Church’s activities. Denial of the permit, the District Court noted, was in furtherance of public safety and crime prevention, compelling governmental interests. These compelling interests were taken in the least restrictive means, as the City considered less restrictive alternatives – issuing the permit subject to conditions – but then determined that outright denial was the only way to protect public safety and prevent crime in the neighborhood.
The Church has appealed the District Court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and filed an emergency motion to allow it to continue its religious ministry pending the outcome of the appeal. The District Court’s order denying the preliminary injunction in Harbor Missionary Church Corp. v. City of San Buenaventura is available here.