Federal Court Rebukes San Diego County for Shutting Down Church

Guatay, CA – A federal judge has ruled that Guatay Christian Fellowship is likely to win its lawsuit against San Diego County. The church, represented by attorneys with Pacific Justice Institute, had rented the same location for nearly a quarter-century before the County abruptly decided that it was improperly zoned and ordered the church to shut down immediately or face criminal penalties and $2,500 per day in fines. The County even threatened to instruct the electric company to turn off power to the church.

After stating during oral argument that “the County’s actions in this case were draconian,” United States District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller issued a preliminary injunction against the County, preventing it from enforcing a harsh Cease and Desist Order against the church. Incredibly, in its Cease and Desist Order the County suggested that a bar would be a more appropriate use of the church site, going on to state that the continued use of the site as a church is “illegal.” After reviewing the facts, Judge Miller wrote, “To effectively deprive a group of inpiduals from practicing their religious beliefs at a site in continuous use for over 20 years, presents extraordinary circumstances.” The court then held that the public interest “overwhelmingly favors” the church.

PJI affiliate attorney Pete Lepiscopo, of the San Diego law firm Lepiscopo & Morrow, filed the case and argued in court on the church’s behalf. He commented, “It is very gratifying to have the Court recognize that the County’s actions were extreme and illegal. The County is not off the hook yet as the church will seek monetary damages from the County for violation of the church’s religious, assembly, and speech rights, but the church is relieved that it will now be allowed to resume meeting for worship as it has done for nearly a quarter century.”

PJI Staff Attorney Karen Milam, who heads PJI’s Southern California office, added, “We were shocked when we first heard what had happened to Guatay Christian Fellowship, and we are thrilled that the court agreed by issuing a preliminary injunction. We want to commend Pete Lepiscopo for his hard work on this case, all of which has been pro bono. We are looking forward to a full and final resolution which will put the church back in the position it would have enjoyed had the County not launched an aggressive campaign to shut it down.”