The California Coastal Commission, an agency recently declared unconstitutional by a superior court judge, has delayed a Santa Cruz church’s request to expand its parking lot – a move church monks say stems from the community’s “anti-religious sentiments.”

Run by the Oblates of St. Joseph, a Roman Catholic religious congregation founded in northern Italy in 1878, the church is a shrine dedicated to St. Joseph. Officially titled by the Catholic Church as the “Shrine of St. Joseph, Guardian of the Redeemer,” the shrine was founded “to serve the interests of Jesus Christ in the spirit and model of St. Joseph, who, as husband of Mary and earthly guardian of Jesus, humbly and quietly did the Lord’s work and faithfully served Jesus as guardian and protector,” according to legal documents filed by the oblates.

The shrine’s history begins in 1931, when oblate missionaries from Italy came to California, working up and down the state attending to Catholic immigrants – largely Italian, but also Mexican and Filipino – in need of clergy to serve them with cultural sensitivity. In 1933, the oblates purchased the current provincial house, which initially served as a school, a chapel and a residence for seminarians, as well as for oblate priests and brothers.

The oblates originally chose its ocean-view property because they believe the site’s natural beauty can serve as a place to encounter God. Maintaining the natural beauty of the property as a place of prayer, solitude and reflection open to all people in search of an encounter with God is an important priority for the oblates, according to their lawyer, James Sweeney.

In 1949, a benefactor deeded an adjacent parcel of property to the oblates. There the shrine was built, along with educational facilities. The latter building was eventually leased to a private secular grammar school in 1990. Rent from the school enables the oblates to continue their religious mission, to operate their shrine ministry in Santa Cruz and to provide material necessities for the oblate seminarians, novices, priests and brothers.

In late 1992, the oblates remodeled the shrine. The renovated building was constructed in a manner to permit future expansion, permitting the seating of additional visitors and “pilgrims” – Catholic faithful from parishes throughout the world who visit the shrine’s inspiring environment. Consistent with the shrine’s canonical status, officially bestowed in 1993, the Bishop of Monterey has granted the oblate community permission to celebrate Holy Eucharist once per day at the shrine. Eucharist may be celebrated more than once per day only during times of novenas or special pilgrimages.

Since residential developments have grown around the shrine, a relatively small but vocal group has convinced the City of Santa Cruz to set up no-parking zones on public streets adjacent to the oblates’ property. As a result, access to the shrine, its grounds and the school has been restricted. Additionally, protesters successfully lobbied to prohibit parents from dropping off students at the main entrance of the school building, an entrance that had been in continuous use since 1961, causing the city to require that students be dropped off on the shrine grounds and cross the shrine property to access the school. Similar campaigns, mounted by the same core group, have also resulted in a curtailing of the use of the shrine bells to call worshippers to prayer and Mass, as well as the closure of a staff parking lot adjacent to the school building.

In 1998, the oblates decided to expand the existing parking lot from 100 spaces to 147, using a vacant lot adjacent to the shrine building. The design would route the limited traffic and noise away from the shrine grounds. After several months of study and plan preparation, the oblates presented a formal plan to the city’s zoning board in late 1998. Finally, the zoning board approved the oblates’ plan on Oct. 26, 2000, modifying it to provide just 32 additional parking spaces.

According to Sweeney, objections were continually raised by opponents throughout the process.

“When one objection was shown to be meritless, a ready replacement was concocted to take its place,” he wrote in a brief to the Coastal Commission. “First, the objectors complained that the possible presence of a red-tailed hawk would preclude any expansion of the shrine parking area. When that objection was determined to be baseless, the objectors complained that the expansion might interfere with the nesting of a peregrine falcon on the property. When it was determined by ornithologists that there wasn’t a single peregrine falcon anywhere near the shrine property, the objectors came up with yet another objection: The parking lot expansion might impact the over-wintering areas of the monarch butterfly. Despite the fact that the butterflies’ eucalyptus tree winter habitat is more than 300 feet from the shrine property, that the habitat itself is located in a 36-acre open-field State park replete with nectaring sources, and that the shrine property is surrounded by residential housing and paved streets, the objectors pressed this likewise baseless objection in the local press and before the City Council.”

But the City Council eventually rejected the protesters’ arguments and agreed with the zoning board to allow the parking-lot expansion. However, the expansion was reduced to just 17 additional spaces.

Not satisfied with the city’s decision, the Sierra Club appealed to the Coastal Commission – a quasi-judicial body of 12 members appointed by the governor and each house of the legislature. Currently, both the legislature and the executive are run by Democrats.

At a July 12 hearing, the commission’s staff issued a report, concluding the commission lacked jurisdiction in the matter. The report was supported by a representative of the city’s planning department, who had appeared at the hearing. But when the commission opened the hearing for public comment, several individuals spoke in opposition to the oblates’ plan. One protester cried over a tray of dead monarch butterflies and castigated the oblates as religious hypocrites who have routinely lied about their “true agenda.”

At the close of public comments, one of the commissioners expressed concern that perhaps more study of butterfly wintering habits was in order, as environmentalist speakers had urged. In response, the planning department representative reminded the commission that two such studies had already been conducted, and both found the parking lot would have no impact on the butterfly habitat. Commission staff also indicated that the commission’s own biologist had personally visited the project site and independently reached the same conclusion. Nevertheless, a new study was ordered, and no date was set for its deadline.

Rev. Philip Massetti, provincial of the oblates, is exasperated with the process.

“The environmental concerns raised by our opponents are unfounded, as the scientists – who have studied their claims – have repeatedly reaffirmed. I believe that the anti-religious sentiments and biases of a small but very vocal group of local activists is driving this entire process,” he said. “For the past two and a half years, we have been trying to negotiate with these people, but it seems that they are not satisfied with anything we offer. It seems that they are using any means available to delay our project and obstruct our ministry. That is why we will probably need to seek recourse under the Constitution.”

That recourse is likely to be a lawsuit alleging the oblates’ First Amendment right to freedom of religious expression is being violated. Additionally, the monks may sue the Coastal Commission under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, said Sweeney.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, requires cities to demonstrate a compelling state interest for any substantial burden they place upon any church’s usage of its property. It also prohibits selective discrimination against churches regarding zoning policies. Only a year old, the law is being tested by inmates, churches and religious institutions, all asserting government has hindered the practice of their faith.

Any lawsuit filed against the commission by the oblates will likely include reference to a recent superior court ruling in which Judge Charles C. Kobayashi declared the Coastal Commission an unconstitutional agency. Since eight of the 12 members are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the legislature, the commission violates constitutionally stipulated separation of powers.

Kobayashi’s ruling does not suggest any remedies, and the commission has appealed the decision. If the ruling is upheld, the commission could be dismantled or restructured. Commission Chairperson Sara Won believes the agency will survive, though its structure may change slightly. But a revised framework for the panel would not have changed the commission’s decision in the oblates’ case, she said.

Asked if she agrees with the ruling, Won replied, “Absolutely not.” Should the ruling be upheld, the commission “will be less independent,” she said. “No one elected official controls us,” Won continued, arguing that makes the commission less political than it otherwise would be. “You don’t want outside interference.”

The Coastal Commission was originally created by voter initiative in 1972. But within a few years, the legislature made the commission permanent.

Responding to critics who say the Democrat-dominated commission is heavy handed in its environmental activism, Won replied, “Everything we do is subject to challenge in the courts.” Besides, she added, the Democratic Party has a variety of views represented. “Here you had a tie vote, and we’re all Democrats,” she said through chuckles.

Won believes the commission is not to blame for any delay to the oblates’ expansion project. She said it will be a “shame” if the commission-initiated study shows no impact on the monarch’s habitat, since the study would only have delayed the church’s expansion. However, she placed the onus of that shame on the oblates, saying if they had conducted a study in accordance with the requirements in the local coastal plan, a new study would not have been necessary.

Won and four other commissioners voted against performing the study, and an equal number of votes were cast in favor of it. The motion was not to take jurisdiction of the matter and therefore allow the expansion to take place as last approved by the City Council. But the tie vote caused the motion to fail, meaning the commission took jurisdiction of the matter and ordered the study.

A new study was necessary, said Won, because the ones presented at the hearing by the oblates and the commission’s own staff were not conducted in accordance with the city’s local coastal plan.

After saying several times that she did not remember the details of the issue, Won said she based her vote against the study on testimony from the commission’s biologist, who said he did not believe a parking-lot expansion would affect the butterflies’ winter habitat.

“Even though I didn’t vote with them (commissioners who supported the study), I did agree with them that proper procedure had not been followed,” Won said. “I agree that technically, there needed to be a study because the local coastal plan required one, and they hadn’t done it.”

But observers who support the oblates believe the commission has alternate motives for ordering the study. Massetti is frustrated with government’s response to the oblates’ situation and fears protesters are trying to oust the religious community from the neighborhood.

“I believe this case is about religious freedom and the ability of our congregation to use our Shrine property for religious purposes. If people wanting to visit the Shrine cannot park, or cannot enjoy a quiet environment for prayer, worship and contemplation, we cannot serve them. This is our ministry. I believe those few people who oppose our efforts want us out of the neighborhood. I am afraid it is because we are a religious group that holds views and values that are considered antiquated and objectionable by those in a position of authority, so they use the monarch butterfly as a political wedge issue that musters political support against us.”

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DOJ intervenes in religious-rights case

Church sues city over land-use permit

Churches sue for zoning rights

Christian college to sue over zoning

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