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California District Court Grants TRO Allowing Church to Continue Homeless Ministry

Written by Admin on June 16, 2014 Category: Land Use and Zoning, RLUIPA

The Central District of California recently granted a temporary restraining order to allow a church to continue operating its homeless ministry program despite repeated attempts by the City of San Buenaventura to shut down the ministry.

Since 2008, Harbor Missionary Church (“Church”) operated a homeless program at which homeless individuals could gather at the Church, participate in fellowship, including worship songs, prayer, and Bible study, receive a meal, shower, do laundry and receive new clothes. In December 2012, San Buenaventura (“City”) informed the Church that it needed a conditional use permit (“CUP”) in order to continue operating its homeless program. The Church applied for a CUP, but on November 13, 2013, the City’s Planning Commission denied the application. The Church appealed this denial, but the City Council upheld the denial on May 12, 2014.

Almost immediately after the City Council’s decision, the Church suspended its homeless program in order to avoid criminal and civil penalties. That same day, City officials searched the Church and asked the pastor whether the homeless program had closed. Soon after, the Church filed an ex parte Motion for Temporary Restraining Order (“TRO”) to enjoin the City from enforcing any land use regulation to prevent the Church from operating its homeless program.

On May 30, 2014, the District Court granted the Church’s ex parte Motion. In its Order, the Court ruled that the City could not enforce any regulation that would prohibit the Church from operating its homeless program. Since the Church was unable to operate its homeless program, which constitutes “a significant part of Harbor’s religious expression,” the Court held that the Church would likely succeed on the merits of its substantial burden claim under RLUIPA. The Court also found that while the City’s decision to deny the Church’s CUP application was in furtherance of the compelling government interest in public safety, the City had not narrowly tailored its action to further this interest, in further violation of RLUIPA. The City had submitted some evidence regarding general public safety concerns in the neighborhood but provided no evidence that linked the homeless program to these safety issues. The Court further held that without a TRO, the Church was facing the real and imminent threat of being subject to civil and/or criminal proceedings by the City if it tried to operate its homeless program. Such proceedings would burden the Church’s free exercise rights under the First Amendment.

Pursuant to the Court’s Order, the City cannot enforce any land use regulation that will prevent the Church from operating its homeless program. The Order will remain in effect until the Court later rules on the Church’s motion for preliminary injunction. A full copy of the Court’s Order in Harbor Missionary Church Corporation v. City of San Buenaventura, No. CV 14-3730-R (C.D. Cal. May 30, 2014), can be viewed here.

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