Judge says city can ban churches to keep downtown ‘fun’

By WND Staff

The Pacific Justice Institute is appealing a federal judge’s ruling allowing Salinas, California, to keep churches out of its downtown in order to have a “fun” street there.

“Salinas deems churches as less deserving of equal treatment under the law than the live children’s theatre, two cinemas, and event center that share the city’s downtown corridor with New Harvest Fellowship,” said Kevin Snider, lead attorney in the case.

“Salinas’ zoning policy seeks to promote a lively pedestrian-friendly street scene by clearing out street-level religious assemblies. Since the lower court’s decision, ironically downtown Salinas has experienced a lively pedestrian street scene in the form of protests. Those types of assemblies may not be the fun city officials were hoping for to replace churches.”

The legal organization said the judge’s ruling “determined that churches do not contribute to a vibrant and fun atmosphere and therefore may be excluded from Salinas’ downtown area.”

New Harvest Christian Fellowship had rented a meeting place along Main Street in Salinas for more than 25 years, but the congregation was growing and needed more space.

“In 2017, it seemed the church’s prayers were answered when a larger building just across the street went up for sale. With property at a premium in Northern California, the church seized the opportunity and bought the building in early 2018,” PJI said.

But the city imposed limits on the church’s use of its building for worship and then demanded retail locations on the ground floor.

PJI stepped in, since the city also was permitting theaters and live entertainment venues to operate nearby.

The city refused to budge when it was presented with the legal requirements of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, so PJI sued.

But then U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Van Keulen of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California found “churches generate limited interest, do not draw tourists, and therefore detract from the city’s goals of vibrancy,” PJI said.

“The court further believed a city is justified in promoting a ‘street of fun’ that excludes churches at the same time it allows even larger concert and entertainment venues,” the legal team said.

“This continues to be one of the most striking examples of unequal treatment of a church in the land use context that we have seen in the past 20 years. We have appealed this case to the Ninth Circuit, and we are optimistic that a different result will be reached upon review by a higher court,” said PJI President Brad Dacus.

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