The complaint of a single resident of a planned community of hundreds of homes in California prompted the homeowners association board to banish four Christian groups that had been meeting in a common building, some for nearly a decade.
But board members Karyl Ralles, Tom Burch, Jim Griffin, Kay Marks and Steve Steiber now face the possibility of a huge liability for what Christian group members describe as a violation of their civil rights.
A judge in a California court has refused to dismiss claims for punitive damages against the board members.
The Pacific Justice Institute, representing Christians who live in the Solera at Kern Canyon community in Bakersfield, California, said Thursday a judge in Kern County Superior Court has denied four motions on behalf of the association, its board of directors and its general manager to strike a request for punitive damages.
“The court observed that the allegations, if proved, would be akin to racism and other forms of civil rights violations justifying punitive damages,” PJI said.
The legal team said it was part of an effort by the homeowners association and its board “to shield itself from punitive damages for shutting down Bible studies and a Sunday worship service.”
The law firm explained what happened.
“Like many retirement communities, Solera at Kern Canyon has a central clubhouse and recreation facilities where numerous interest groups like book clubs and water aerobics meet. About 10 years ago, several members of the community began meeting together on Tuesday mornings for a men’s Bible study. Two different women’s Bible studies were later formed. In 2014, some of the men felt a need to serve physically challenged residents who have difficulty leaving the community by offering informal worship on Sundays. The Sunday services quickly became the best attended weekly event held at the clubhouse. Participants come from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds, and it is not a formal church. Unlike most churches, no offering is taken, and the retired pastor who does most of the preaching does not receive a salary.”
However, according to court filings, one resident, Bruce Blythe, threatened to sue the homeowners association for allowing the Christian groups to meet in facilities for which they paid dues.
The arguments immediately turned nasty, the court filing explains.
“Among other invectives, it was suggested the Romans should have finished off the Christians while they had the chance. In response, the HOA board just before Thanksgiving ordered all four groups to stop meeting in the clubhouse indefinitely. After one resident filed suit in late December and an injunction hearing was scheduled, the board reluctantly allowed the groups to resume meeting while it considered further restrictions. Leaders of the religious groups are now regularly denounced at the HOA Board meetings and they receive numerous harassing phone calls,” PJI said.
The court filing explains Nancy Griffin, the communications director at the clubhouse, the spouse of board member Jim Griffin, also stated at the time, “Don’t worry … those Christians will be out of there before Christmas.”
The lawsuit alleges violations of the board’s fiduciary duties, the Unruh Civil Rights Act, and the fair employment and Housing Act, along with intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and negligence.
The suit seeks a declaratory judgment against the defendants plus general, special and exemplary damages, attorneys’ fees, costs and injunctions.
Matt McReynolds, the PJI attorney who represented the groups’ leaders at the hearing, said: “We are encouraged that the court recognized the seriousness of the allegations in this suit. While it is not our clients’ desire to punish or be vindictive toward anyone, they simply want to worship in peace, and they continue to face harassment and hostility unlike any other group in the community. We look forward to moving ahead with this case on their behalf.”
Brad Dacus, the president of PJI, said, “It is an honor and privilege to represent senior saints who are using their retirement years to pursue God and serve their neighbors.”
The firm said the association already is drafting rules and regulations that, “if implemented, could eliminate one or more of the four religious groups and give the HOA board authority to shut down any group deemed by the HOA board to be causing division or embarrassment.”
The board reluctantly agreed to let the groups continue meeting while the dispute is in court.
Those attending the worship service or the Bible studies say they simply want the same access to the community facilities that is given to other groups, including yoga classes and clubs for crafts, computers, drama, gardening, golf, reading, sewing, tai chi and tennis.
The religious groups were ejected around the time of Thanksgiving and reinstated near the end of the year, at least temporarily.
McReynolds earlier in the case warned the HOA board that the suspension of the meetings violated state civil rights laws.
“Religious freedom cannot depend on the whims of a few community leaders or activists,” he said.