Court Suggests Church Split; Case Heads to Ninth Circuit

San Francisco, CA – A church in the Bay Area is appealing to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after a federal trial court rejected its claims that the City of San Leandro unlawfully denied a rezoning request. In the decision being appealed, U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton suggested the growing congregation split up its “operations” and activities among multiple locations, rather than renovating a larger property it had purchased.

The church, Faith Fellowship Foursquare Church, gets weekly complaints from neighbors and attendees about overcrowding at its current site in a residential area. In an effort to meet those concerns, the church searched throughout the city and found only one property that would fit its growing congregation—a large, vacant office building in an industrial park virtually deserted on the weekends. Nearly a year after the church approached the city and believed its use would be approved, the city denied the church’s rezoning request. The city believed the property could be better used to create jobs and tax revenue. Although worship is banned at the site, a wide variety of secular uses—such as concerts, adult entertainment and recreation—are allowed. After all efforts to negotiate with the city failed, attorneys with Pacific Justice Institute filed suit on the church’s behalf in 2007. This month, PJI attorneys filed their opening brief with the Ninth Circuit.

PJI Chief Counsel Kevin Snider commented, “This case could not better illustrate why the federal religious land use law was enacted by a unanimous Congress and President Clinton in 2000. Churches simply are not given the same opportunities as for-profit uses with the same impacts. It is unfortunate that many cities no longer recognize the tremendous benefits churches provide to their communities and in places like San Leandro actually discriminate against religious uses, but federal law requires equal treatment. Unless the lower court decision is overturned, every church on the West Coast is in danger of being denied a fair chance to expand and grow.”