Christians in Temecula, Calif., are fighting a county proposal that would effectively ban churches – or the expansion of the area’s only current church – in a 19,000-acre “Wine Country Community Plan.”
Hundreds have already voiced their objection at the first of two public meetings on the development plan; reportedly more than 3,000 have written letters to the county; and that single church, Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship, with the help of the nonprofit law firm Advocates for Faith & Freedom, is gearing up to file a federal lawsuit against what it says is a gross violation of religious freedom in America.
“It’s unethical and unconstitutional,” area resident Lilly Brown Walter stated publicly at the planning meeting, according to the Riverside, Calif., Press-Enterprise. “There is a silent majority who will not tolerate that. There are plenty of people poised and ready to take this to the end.”
The Wine Country zone was first created years ago by Riverside County to protect its economically critical vineyards and wineries. But in 1999, local vintners publicly contested Calvary Chapel’s attempt to build a church in the Wine Country when the congregation grew too large for the barn where its services had been held.
Though the church was allowed to construct its building, the county shortly thereafter passed an ordinance banning any further church construction in the Wine Country – a fact Calvary Chapel didn’t discover until its zoning request to expand facilities was denied earlier this year.
Now Riverside County is looking to expand Wine Country by nearly 12,000 acres to allow growth of another 60 wineries and construction of roughly 1,000 homes.
But if Wine Country expands, so expands the reach of the ban on churches.
Advocates for Faith & Freedom reports that Calvary Chapel’s pastor, Clark Van Wick, attempted to meet with local vintners to avoid a controversy like the one in 1999 that led to the ban in the first place.
Van Wick, however, was allegedly met with a rude answer: “We don’t want your kind out here.”
Advocates for Faith & Freedom reports the vintners remain opposed to nearby churches in the expanded Wine Country, but the law firm insists a ban on churches is not a legal use of zoning laws.
“Although religious liberty is often exercised in the form of free speech, as in the incident surrounding Chick-fil-A, it is more often exercised in the form of believers assembling together for the common purpose of worshiping God, holding church services and educating the youth,” asserted Robert Tyler, general counsel for Advocates for Faith & Freedom, in a statement. “We must defend the right to assemble against discriminatory zoning laws and land use regulations, or else governmental officials will be able to zone out Christians whenever it is politically expedient.”
An organization called Wine Country Freedom has established a website with local government contact information so concerned citizens can get involved.
The organization also crafted a 30-second video explaining the importance of their fight:
After the first public meeting on the expansion plan, the county commissioners requested a full analysis of churches and Wine Country, the Press-Enterprise reports. The analysis is expected to be complete by the second public hearing scheduled for Aug. 22.
Wine Country Freedom is encouraging people to contact local officials to voice opposition to the ban, then attend the meeting itself, where Calvary Chapel will serve Chick-fil-A to all those who attend during the lunchtime break.