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All People’s Church Files Suit Against City of San Diego for Discriminatory Decision to Deny Church Project in Del Cerro

After years of public engagement and processing of our development application, the Light Project proposed by All Peoples Church was denied on a split vote by the San Diego City Council.  Church leadership believes that the decision to deny was inappropriate and discriminatory against us as a religious institution. 

As a result, All Peoples Church has decided to sue the City of San Diego in Federal Court in order to seek a fair redress of its request to build a home for our congregation on its property.  This action was taken after careful consideration, in depth discussions with legal experts and much prayer.

Federal law is very clear, and what the City did in denying the Light Project was, we believe, in violation of federal law, the US Constitution, state law, and inconsistent with the City’s own policies, rules and practices. 

Brief History

Starting in summer of 2018, the Church embarked on a public engagement effort in order to build a new home for the congregation in the Del Cerro community on a piece of land zoned for development along College Avenue and the I-8 freeway. 

Given the need to find a new location to meet the space needs of our growing congregation, the Church’s leaders chose to pursue the construction of a Church and was able to secure a suitable piece of developable land at 5555 College Avenue in the Del Cerro community.  The location was ideal, given the central location for Church members.  The community itself also had numerous other houses of worship on similarly zoned land in and around the community demonstrating that Church use was viable.

The Church then retained an expert team of land use professionals and environmental consultants to prepare a development plan for the site.  This team included some of the best technical subject matter experts to analyze every detail to ensure the project would work and not impact the surrounding community.  Every aspect was exhaustively analyzed including noise, visual, biological and traffic. 

Starting in summer of 2018, the Church embarked on a public engagement effort to further the pursuit of this new home for our congregation.  The Church engaged in many meetings over several years with our Del Cerro neighbors and greater Navajo community, forming relationships and receiving input to make the project better.

The initial tone of these meetings was positive and constructive, but, unfortunately, changed when a new group of residents, most of whom live near the site, formed to block the project.  The opponents harassed one group, the Del Cerro Action Committee, out of existence, and forced out favorably disposed members of the Navajo Community Planners Committee in a campaign effort to stack the Committee with anti-Church activists. As a result, the resulting feedback was one of insult, false accusation and a clear intent to discriminate against a church use.

The Church continued with the city’s process despite this harassment and the numerous various false and defamatory accusations.  These accusations even extended to harassment of project team members.  One such effort led to a lawsuit and a judgement against one of the project opponents for their inappropriate activities.

Six years later, after receiving the City’s professional staff support, the project went to the San Diego Planning Commission and garnered an unanimous vote in favor in late 2023.  During this hearing, numerous Planning Commissioners lauded the project, noted how it would improve the existing conditions on College Avenue, making it safer, and saying that it was the right use for this location.

Nevertheless, in January 2024, after a daylong hearing, the Church project was denied on a split vote by the San Diego City Council.  The justification was a twisted distortion of the City’s rules and even in conflict with the City Attorney’s own admonition about federal protections over religious institution discrimination.  It was also in conflict with the City’s own professional staff recommendation and city procedures. 

As a result of this inappropriate denial, which the Church believes is in violation of federal law, the Church has decided to challenge the denial in Federal Court.  Sadly, the City of San Diego has a history of religious discrimination in its land use decisions, including a recent judgement against the City in favor of Our Lady of Peace Academy in Mission Hills. 

“The law is clear, the City cannot discriminate against a religious use using different rules and analysis from a non religious project in a similar situation,” said Daniel Dalton of Dalton & Tomich, PLC, the lead lawyer for the Church in this lawsuit.  “Federal law protects Churches from the abuse of government in creating different standards for a religious facility, which is what the Council did in justifying its motion to deny the All People’s Church Light Project,” he continued.

“We believe now, more than ever, in the vision and need for our permanent home at this site,” said Pastor Robert Herber from the All People’s Church.  “The personal attacks and accusations used to foment opposition were unfortunate, but we’ve learned as Christians to suffer the slings and arrows of hate.  Nevertheless, the Council’s decision to side with the opposition was wrong, which is why we’ve decided to protect our rights by seeking legal redress,” he continued.

The lawsuit was filed in the US Federal Court and will challenge the denial on the grounds that it violates the federal protections afforded to religious institutions.  The lawsuit states that the City inappropriately denied the Church’s Light Project in violation of federal law, the US Constitution and state law.  Specifically, the land use-related provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) prohibit state and local governments from regulating land use in a manner that discriminates against or among religious institutions.

Daniel Dalton, the lead attorney, with the firm Dalton & Tomich, PLC has previously successfully sued the City, including the recent decision to overturn the denial to expand the Our Lady of Peace Academy in the Mission Hills community on the same discriminatory grounds.

“The City has a long history of discrimination against religious institutions,” said Dalton.  “They’ve made it nearly impossible to site them, and when the land use laws of the City allows, they change the rules to deny access.  That is wrong, federal law doesn’t allow it, and we believe the Court will ultimately find their decision inappropriate and overturn,” he continued.

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