Earlier this week, a California church that operates a homeless ministry program attempted to convince the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to revive the program, called Operation Embrace, after a lower court upheld the City’s decision to shutter the program.
Last year, we wrote about the dispute between Harbor Missionary Church and the City of San Buenaventura, California. In November 2013, the Church submitted a request for a permit to provide meals, clothing, laundry services, showers and worship services to the poor and homeless through Operation Embrace. The City denied the permit request, claiming the Church drew violent, mentally ill, and addicted persons to a neighborhood that also included a day care center and an elementary school.
In May 2014, within days of Harbor Missionary Church filing its Complaint, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted an ex parte temporary restraining order, which allowed the Church to continue operating Operation Embrace despite the City’s repeated and continuous attempts to shut it down. However, after more thorough briefing on the dispute, in July 2014 the Court denied the Church’s motion for a preliminary injunction. The Court determined that many area residents, including many who moved to the neighborhood before the Church began providing homeless services, now feared for the health, safety, and security of their families because of Operation Embrace. The Church promptly appealed the district court’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Earlier this week, the Church’s attorneys attempted to convince the Ninth Circuit to reverse the lower court’s decision and uphold the Church’s rights under RLUIPA. Specifically, the Church’s attorneys argued that the City has substantially burdened the Church’s religious exercise by shutting down Operation Embrace since there are less restrictive ways to address the City’s concerns about problems in the neighborhood purportedly caused by Operation Embrace participants. The judges directly asked the City’s attorney how an outright refusal to allow the Church to operate its ministry program is the least restrictive means the City can employ to address its concerns. The three-judge panel also stressed several times that the parties should attempt to work together to settle the dispute out of court, particularly given the humanitarian nature of the services the Church seeks to provide.
In the meantime, the district court’s decision continues to force the Church to keep Operation Embrace shuttered, thereby preventing the Church from carrying out an essential tenet of its religious ministry. The Harbor Community Church case is a prime example of the diverse ways in which religious institutions across the country express and exercise their religious beliefs, as well as the obstacles and roadblocks religious institutions may unfortunately encounter in order to be able to freely exercise their beliefs.
If you represent a religious institution and believe your religious exercise rights have been violated, please feel free to contact the attorneys at Dalton & Tomich to discuss your matter. We will be sure to provide an update when the Ninth Circuit issues its decision in this case.
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