A federal judge scolded San Diego County for closing a Christian church’s worship center and ordered officials to process permits needed by the congregation to remedy violations.
The ruling found that Guatay Christian Fellowship, on Old Highway 80 in San Diego County, probably will win its lawsuit against the county, which had shut down the building and banned the congregation from meeting there over a zoning issue.
County officials said the building could be used for a bar, but not worship, and ordered the church, which had rented the building for nearly 25 years, to close under the threat of criminal penalties and fines of up to $2,500 per day.
The county also threatened to contact the electrical company and instruct it to cut power to the structure.
However, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller, in his ruling, said, “The county’s actions in this case were draconian,” according to the officials with Pacific Justice Institute, which worked on the case.
The judge’s preliminary injunction against the county prevents it from further implementing its “harsh” cease-and-desist order, officials said.
“To effectively deprive a group of individuals from practicing their religious beliefs at a site in continuous use for over 20 years, presents extraordinary circumstances,” the judge wrote.
“The public interest overwhelmingly weighs in favor of [the church],” he continued. “Congress has determined that the balance of equities and public interest should weigh in favor of the free exercise of religion and that this balance should only be disrupted when the government is able to prove, by specific evidence, that its interests are compelling and its burdening of religious freedom is as limited as possible.”
Pete Lepiscopo, a PJI affiliate attorney of the San Diego law firm Lepiscopo & Morrow, who filed the suit and argued in court on the church’s behalf, commented, “It is very gratifying to have the court recognize that the county’s actions were extreme and illegal.”
He continued, “The county is not off the hook yet as the church will seek monetary damages from the county for violation of the church’s religious, assembly, and speech rights, but the church is relieved that it will now be allowed to resume meeting for worship as it has done for nearly a quarter century.”
Attorney Karen Milam, who heads the Southern California office of PJI, added, “We were shocked when we first heard what had happened to Guatay Christian Fellowship, and we are thrilled that the court agreed by issuing a preliminary injunction.”
The judge also ordered that the church could resume its religious services as soon as it resolves several code concerns, and the county “is ordered to allow and expeditiously process any permit required to remedy the violations.”
He noted the county previously had acknowledged the church at this location, even informing the church that its existing wells and reservoir are adequate for the “use of the recreation building for a 200-person church.”
The judge’s opinion also cited county actions in issuing permits for electrical upgrades, noting the upgrade pertained to an “existing church.”