Church Wins Discrimination Case at Ninth Circuit

San Francisco, CA – The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today ruled that the city of San Leandro illegally discriminated against a church by not allowing it to use its own property for worship services. The church, Faith Fellowship Foursquare Church, is represented by staff attorneys with Pacific Justice Institute.

Faith Fellowship outgrew its current location in a residential area of San Leandro and scoured the city for a larger site that would have less impact on their neighbors. They found only one building in the city that would fit its needs—a vacant industrial building in a part of town that was virtually deserted on the weekends. Relying on statements from city officials, the church bought the building and prepared to relocate. The city then shocked the church by denying rezoning and refusing to allow them to move in, with officials saying they preferred tax-producing entities like entertainment venues to service-oriented non-profit religious institutions.

Represented by PJI, the church and denomination filed suit in 2007 under the U.S. Constitution and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). A federal judge in San Francisco sided with the city, accepting its rationale that industrial uses are more important to a city than churches, and questioning why the church could not just split into multiple smaller congregations.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed. Writing for the majority, Judge Kevin Duffy found that the lower court committed several errors including the rejection of the church’s theological reasoning for needing to expand. Further, the city’s need for preservation of industrial land and generation of revenue is not a compelling reason to keep a church out of a property, the Court ruled. Today’s decision not only reverses the lower court, it creates significant precedent that could benefit thousands of churches and other religious groups.

Brad Dacus, president of PJI stated, “This is a victory for every religious institution on the West Coast. The Ninth Circuit took a great step today toward leveling the playing field for churches and religious groups seeking to start, expand or relocate.”

Decisions from the Ninth Circuit are binding on federal courts in California, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Alaska, Hawaii and U.S. Territories in the Pacific. The court’s decisions are often followed by courts in other parts of the country, as well. Kevin Snider, chief counsel for PJI, argued the case at the Ninth Circuit last October.