Ninth Circuit Rules in Favor of Church

SAN FRANCISCO – The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that a city plan prohibiting churches from ground-floor occupancy of buildings in a three-block area of Salinas’ downtown special zone violates federal law.


New Harvest Christian Fellowship had rented space along Main Street in the City of Salinas for over 25 years, and its growing congregation prompted church leaders to recognize the need for a larger facility to accommodate ministry needs. The Church purchased the Beverly building, a larger building in the downtown corridor, and filed an application with the City for an amendment to the zoning code and a conditional use permit. The City Council rejected the application, finding that churches do not contribute to a “vibrant” and “fun” pedestrian-oriented atmosphere and therefore may be excluded from Salinas’ downtown area.


Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) filed suit on behalf of New Harvest in federal court to challenge the City’s downtown plan and identify many similar categories of gatherings that are allowed under the local ordinance while excluding houses of worship. The facts of the case showed that these preferred assembly uses are located in the three-block area: two cinemas, a children’s theatre, and a multi-use facility which holds events such as comedy and music performances, weddings, quinceañeras, and business conferences.


The lawsuit was filed under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2019. When the district court ruled against the Church last year, PJI appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit, where Kevin Snider, Chief Counsel for PJI, argued the case before a three-judge panel.


“This church did not seek special consideration, but simply asked for equal treatment,” stated Kevin Snider. “Too often the faithful are unfairly pushed out of prime zones by city officials and find themselves on the outside looking in.”


Pastor Ignacio Torres of New Harvest explained, “Someone once said, ‘Faith is spelled R-I-S-K.’ When God spoke to me to buy the Beverly building, many individuals didn’t understand the reasoning behind New Harvest buying a building it couldn’t use.”


“PJI uniquely stands ready to defend churches, like this one, that simply could not defend themselves.”, said Attorney Brad Dacus, President of PJI. “With offices now coast-to-coast in 17 states, we will continue to work to represent, without charge, churches who wish to follow their holy calling even if hostile, intolerant cities vigorously attempt to thwart such callings.”


Pastor Torres stated, “Today once again God has demonstrated His faithfulness. I will always be extremely grateful to PJI for defending the religious freedom of people and churches.”