Ventura Accused of Stifling Good Samaritans

     LOS ANGLES (CN) - The City of Ventura violated the religious rights of a church by denying it permission to continue its homeless outreach program, the church claims in court.
     Harbor Missionary Church sued the City of San Buenaventura, its city manager, the City Council, the Planning Commission and the community development director, in Federal Court.
     Ventura, pop. 111,000, the seat of Ventura County, is officially named San Buenaventura.
     The church wants the city enjoined from interfering with the Operation Embrace program the church runs downtown.
     The church bought the 3100 Preble Ave. property from the Quakers 10 years ago and secured a land use permit, according to the complaint. There it runs a day care center and ministry for the poor that provides meals, clothes, laundry and showers.
     Forcing the church to close its doors on the homeless violates its religious freedom, the church says.
     Some people who live near the church don't like the outreach program, viewing it as a nuisance in an area that includes a local school and park.
     "For me, it's a matter of safety," Tracy Strong told the Ventura County Star last year. "My point of view is, safety trumps religion."
     The city asked the church to apply for a new permit in 2012, claiming that the previous permit covered worship but not Harbor's social services for the homeless.
     Since the church had been running the ministry for four years, it claims it was "confused" by the request, but reapplied in early 2013 "in the spirit of cooperation," and paid the $7,200 application fee.
     Months later, the city Planning Commission denied the permit. The City Council deadlocked after the church appealed, so the Planning Commission decision was allowed to stand.
     The church was told that it would have to end the program or move, according to the complaint.
     "Ministering to the poor, both spiritually and physically, has been and continues to be a central tenet of the church's doctrine, faith, and practice," the complaint states. "By forcing Harbor to discontinue its ministry to the poor, the city has substantially burdened the church's religious exercise without a legally justifiable reason, in violation of RLUIPA [Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act] and the First Amendment."
     Harbor claims that Ventura "never reached the question of whether the denial was the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest."
     The church says it does not have enough money to move. And even if it did, and it decided to move, it could take months to find a new home, secure new permits, and complete renovations or construction work, the lawsuit states.
     "In the meantime, Harbor's congregants need a church. If the church simply shuts its doors, its congregants will have nowhere to go," the complaint states.
     The church seeks declaratory judgment that the permit it has is sufficient for it to run the outreach program.
     It is represented by James Sonne of the Stanford Law School Religious Liberty Clinic.
     Ventura's estimated median household income in 2011 was $62,971, according to city-data.com, 10 percent above the statewide median of $57,287.
     Its median house or condo value that year was $401,100, about 13 percent higher than the statewide median of $355,600.
     It is 52 percent white, 34 percent and Latino and 2 percent African American, according to city-data.