Harbor Missionary Church (“the Church”), located in the City of San Buenaventura, California (“Ventura” or “the City”), provides daily chapel services, bible studies, and prayer to the community of Ventura. Specifically, the Church has devoted itself to serving the needs of Ventura’s homeless population, believing that caring for the homeless is a form of divine communion with God. In 2004, Harbor Missionary Church purchased a piece of property with permission from the City to operate a church and daycare center. To further its mission, the Church implemented a neighborhood outreach program called Operation Embrace, the goal of which is to provide care, religious services, and spiritual guidance to homeless men and women. Operation Embrace offers religious teachings, worship, music, prayer, clothing, food, showers, counseling, and other support. The Church’s belief is that operation of a homeless ministry is part of its religious and sacred duty to serve “the least of these” among us, citing Matthew 25:34–46.
The success of Operation Embrace is exemplified by its large draw of homeless individuals from surrounding areas, however, this influx of people also prompted concerns from neighboring residents. Citizens began to report incidents involving threats, trespassing, public nudity, and substance abuse. In an attempt to address these concerns, the Church took a variety of steps, including employing a security guard, enforcing a strict no-loitering rule, requiring identification, coordinating regularly with social service agencies, strengthening its neighborhood patrols, maintaining a public hotline for complaints, coordinating hours of operation with the nearby elementary school, and escorting out of the neighborhood anyone not admitted to Church services. In January 2013, the Church was informed that it would need to obtain a conditional use permit to continue Operation Embrace.
In February 2013, the Church complied with the City’s request and applied for such a permit. City staff members studied the issue, met with Church officials, and hosted public meetings before ultimately recommending that the City grant the conditional use permit subject to certain conditions. However, despite these recommendations, the Church’s application was denied. The Church then filed suit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. The Church claimed violation of its rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Pending the lawsuit, the Church requested a preliminary injunction to prevent the City from enforcing regulations that would shut down Operation Embrace. Ultimately, the Church’s attempts to enjoin the City from its discriminatory practices were unsuccessful at the district court level.
RLUIPA provides that a government land-use regulation “that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a . . . religious assembly or institution” is unlawful “unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden . . . is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; . . . and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a)(1)(B). Therefore, for a substantial burden claim to succeed, the Church was required to prove that the City’s denial of the conditional use permit substantially burdened the Church’s exercise of religion. To counter this claim, the City had to prove that the denial of the permit was the least restrictive method of furthering a compelling government interest. The district court held that the Church failed to show that the City’s denial of the permit constituted a substantial burden on the Church’s exercise of religion. Additionally, the court determined that excluding Operation Embrace from the neighborhood was the least restrictive means of advancing the compelling interest in public health and safety.
On appeal to the Ninth Circuit, the Court of Appeals determined that the district court erred in its analysis by minimizing the burden imposed on the Church’s free exercise of religion. The appellate court highlighted that the City’s denial of the permit prevented the Church from conducting its homeless ministry: an integral part of its religion. In a declaration, the Church cites to the Bible at Matthew 25:34–46 as a source for its belief that a homeless ministry is part of its religious duty to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. The Church also cites to the mother church’s position papers, which explain that the Church should exercise “Christian compassion” toward the oppressed, poor, and hungry. Therefore, the district court’s subjective determination of the validity of the Church’s beliefs represented an abuse of discretion. “[W]hile a court can arbiter the sincerity of an individual’s religious beliefs, courts should not inquire into the truth or falsity of stated religious beliefs.” United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78, 86-87 (1944).
Further, the district court reasoned that the permit denial did not constitute a substantial burden because the Church could continue to operate its homeless ministry by simply relocating outside of the neighborhood. The appellate court disagreed, highlighting the substantial costs associated with relocation of the homeless ministry: “In addition to selling its current property, the Church would have to raise an estimated $1.4 million to relocate, an expense that the City does not dispute.” As stated in Int’l Church of the Foursquare Gospel v. City of San Leandro, 673 F.3d 1059, 1068 (9th Cir. 2011): “[W]hen the religious institution has no ready alternatives, or where the alternatives require substantial delay, uncertainty, and expense, a complete denial of the [religious institution’s] application might be indicative of a substantial burden.”
Although the City was correct in asserting that public safety and prevention of crime are compelling interests, the district court failed to apply the proper analysis when it determined that denying the Church’s permit application was the least restrictive means of further those compelling interests. Specifically, the district court did not address the fact that the City staff, in its recommendation that the permit be approved, provided additional conditions to further mitigate the program’s impact on the neighborhood. The district court record indicated that the implementation of these conditions would have aligned with the City’s interests in health and safety, while allowing the Church to conduct its homeless services within the neighborhood. Yet, the district court concluded, in a single sentence, that an outright denial was the City’s only option. As a result, the Ninth Circuit remanded the case to the district court, and requested that it make factual findings as to what conditions could be implemented as to satisfy the interests of both the City and the Church.
Should you have a ministry within your religious organization that has run afoul local municipal actors, please contact one of the professionals at Dalton & Tomich PLC to evaluate your claim and assist you with your case.