A small church near San Diego, Calif., is celebrating a county decision to give up an effort by bureaucrats to close down its worship center because of an apparent zoning mistake nearly three decades ago.
The Pacific Justice Institute announced San Diego County has agreed to provide a “Minor Deviation Permit” to Gutay Christian Fellowship in Gutay, Calif., allowing worshipers to continue to use a building they first rented some 25 years ago.
The problem was that the county had zoned the building for a country-western bar that never opened. But when the church wanted to rent the building, no one raised any concerns.
The county even had acknowledged the church’s location, informing members that the existing wells and reservoir were adequate for the “use of the recreation building for a 200-person church.”
The county also previously had issued permits for electrical upgrades, noting the work pertained to an “existing church.”
But several years ago, someone noticed the zoning conflict. County officials ordered the church members to vacate the premises under a threat of fines of up to $2,500 per day.
The dispute went to court immediately, and a federal judge ended up scolding the county. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller, in his ruling, said, “The county’s actions in this case were draconian.”
The judge wrote that 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 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.”
Even so, it still took years for the county to give up the battle.
“We’re extremely pleased with this positive outcome. Our affiliate attorney, Pete Lepiscopo, did an outstanding job representing this important church to the Guatay community,” said Brad Dacus, PJI president. “Our nation needs more churches, and governments not standing in their way.”
The county had wanted the church to purchase a Major Use Permit, a process that PJI estimated would have cost the church of a handful of people close to $500,000.
“I could see this [opposition by the county] if we were crooks and hurting people, but we give to missionaries in Africa and Mexico,” said the pastor, Stan Peterson.
“The faith and courage exhibited by Pastor Peterson and the congregation over six years have proved an example to other pastors and churches, much like David’s faith and courage when facing Goliath,” said Lepiscopo.
Guatay is about an hour’s drive east of San Diego.
Peterson, a self-employed carpet cleaner and part-time pastor, described the church in a video promoting Pacific Justice:
“We praise the Lord. We sing a lot. We’re extremely happy people,” he said.
Like many of America’s churches, the assembly began meeting in homes and grew too large, so it rented the building, “made it pretty” and worked to serve the community, he said.
As WND reported, the county also had threatened the church by saying officials would contact the power company and order utilities to the building shut down.