Church Raises Alarm Over City’s Push for More Control of Private Property

Washington, D.C. – A California case being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court raises nationwide concerns that cities are trying to seize unprecedented authority over private property, according to attorneys involved in the case.

Pacific Justice Institute represents a church in San Leandro—across the bay from San Francisco—that was prevented from moving into a building it had purchased on the open market, because the city wanted a moneymaking enterprise to get the property. The church filed suit under a federal law that prohibits cities from treating houses of worship worse than secular, for-profit uses in land use decisions. After the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the city this spring, it appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a response filed this week, the church is urging the Supreme Court not to take the case, warning that the city is claiming unprecedented authority to control the use of private property.

PJI Staff Attorney Matthew McReynolds, who wrote the church’s brief, commented, “This case has the potential to help—or harm—property owners across the country. In a nutshell, the city believes its wishes for use of a piece of property should trump the owners’ rights in almost every case—even when fundamental First Amendment rights are involved. Because we believe the government rarely knows best how someone else should use their land, we are vigorously contesting this appeal.”

Brad Dacus, the president of Pacific Justice Institute, commented, “The First Amendment prohibits the government from using over-restrictive zoning laws to dictate the precise locations and membership sizes of churches. Now more than ever, as so many religious congregations are reaching out to those hit the hardest by budget cutbacks and economic turmoil, local governments should be encouraging—not pushing away—these helping hands.”