The scent of Dairy City has turned sour.

The city of Cypress, Calif. – originally named Dairy City when it formed in 1956 – condemned 18 acres belonging to Cottonwood Christian Center last week, in order to convey the land to Costco.

Cottonwood Christian Center is the spiritual home to more than 4,000 families. It bought the land in Sept. 1999. The property was then permitted for a 108,000 square foot office building, though the zoning in place did allow for church uses. The city staff told the church that it preferred retail on the site, but the church went forward with its $14 million purchase.

The city’s position is blunt: It wants the tax revenue that Costco will bring.

The church will not be cowed. In January of this year, the church launched lawsuits under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. The city added insult to injury when it lowballed the church on the value of the property. Although the property was appraised at $17.9 million this spring, the city has told the church that it will be paid $14 million.

To get a glimpse of the deep, bureaucratic ethic that controls the city, ponder the “Mission Statement” and “Vision Statement” that are touted on the city’s website: “The city of Cypress, in partnership with the community, will maintain and enhance a safe, attractive and sustainable environment in which to live work and play,” and “The vision of the city of Cypress is to be an outstanding family-oriented community and premier business center.”

My guess is that the 47,000 citizens of Cypress didn’t know they had a mission or a vision. And I am certain they did not know that their city would become internationally famous as representative of hostility to faith and governmental greed.

Law professors from the left and right agreed on my radio program last week that Cypress had gone too far – too far in distorting what a “public use” was, since a “public use” must accompany a condemnation. They agreed as well that if, as appears to be the case, the city had targeted a particular church, then the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause had been violated as well. We never made it to the new federal law designed to prevent such outrages. In short, the city appears to have one heck of a malpractice suit against its legal advisers when it gets walloped in the courts. Citizens who will get left holding the bill ought now to be asking to see the legal opinion analyzing the city’s tactics. Again, my guess is that none was asked for, and none was volunteered.

I spent four hours fielding calls from my radio program from coast-to-coast when I discussed this seizure. A Cypress city councilman called to defend the action. When he began whining about being the victim, I let him have it. Petty tyrants complaining that they aren’t understood are both offensive and mind-bogglingly obtuse.

The Wall Street Journal chastised Costco the very next day, as had hundreds and maybe thousands of e-mail defenders of religious freedom. As threats of cut-up Costco cards flowed into HQ, Costco hunkered down and produced a masterpiece of dissembling that met the classic requirement of a defense lawyer, the superstore equivalent of “It’s not my dog. It didn’t bite you. And besides, you kicked it first.” Costco disclaimed responsibility and claimed support for the church’s efforts to find a new site, but did not foreswear buying the 18 acres. “If we don’t buy it, someone else will,” was the bottom line. In short, the warehouse store guys are hanging tough. They want the land.

So this is why American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are fighting and dying a half-world away: To make the country safe for tin-horn councilman-bullies and avaricious super-stores – not the right of a free people to join together and worship their God as they understand Him.

Perhaps the Cypress City Council and the Cypress city staff are not anti-Christian, just dense. They have talked themselves into a corner, and now find themselves on the receiving end of a large and growing wave of disgust. Legal bills will follow. So will defeat.

The first rule of holes for someone who wants to get out of one is: Stop digging.

Stop digging, Cypress and Costco. Give the church its permits and show up for a love fest when the blue-ribbon is cut.

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