Groundbreaking Settlement Protects Religious Freedom in Senior Community
Bakersfield, CA–A court case that tested the application of civil rights protections to Bible studies and a worship service in a senior community has been favorably resolved through a settlement.
Pacific Justice Institute represented the leadership of four religious groups that had been suspended in late 2016 by their homeowners’ association (HOA). The suspension followed a complaint from one atheist in the retirement community, Solera at Kern Canyon. Other than the one complaint, the religious groups had become quite popular within the community, with approximately 100 weekly attendees of the four groups in a community of 558 homes. Like other interest groups, the Sunday morning worship service, men’s Bible study and two women’s Bible studies meet in the community center.
After the Bible studies and worship service were suspended just before Thanksgiving of 2016, one attendee of the worship service and men’s Bible studies filed suit, and the suspension was lifted at the end of that year. The HOA, however, continued to insist that it had done nothing wrong and possessed the authority to suspend the groups again at anytime, so litigation continued throughout 2017 and early 2018 to resolve that issue. PJI intervened in the suit last spring on behalf of the leadership of the Bible studies and worship service. PJI argued that, although the homeowners’ association was not directly subject to the First Amendment, it owed residents similar obligations under the state’s civil rights laws.
The case was scheduled for trial in mid-May when the parties met on March 12 for mediation. In mediation, the HOA agreed to a number of concessions that will protect the seniors’ religious rights going forward. Once the settlement was finalized over the next several weeks, the plaintiffs filed for dismissal of the case earlier this month. They were designated in the settlement as the prevailing parties.
Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, commented, “We are thrilled with this tremendous victory on behalf of these courageous senior citizens. This may be the first time a group of residents have taken on their HOA in court to fight for their religious meeting rights—and won.”
Matthew McReynolds, the PJI attorney who led the group’s litigation in the case, stated, “Throughout this case, their faith and dedication have inspired us. They are overcoming physical challenges and disabilities to spread the light in their community, and we couldn’t have been more proud to represent them.”
PJI worked collaboratively in this case with attorney Doug Gosling of Braun Gosling in Bakersfield, who represented the other plaintiff.