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Court Resurrects Church’s Zoning Exclusion Claim

(CN) - The 9th Circuit reinstated a Christian congregation's lawsuit against the northern California city that barred it from building a new church in an industrial zone.

By rejecting the Faith Fellowship Foursquare Church's application to construct a building on land the church had bought in anticipation of a zoning change that never happened, officials in San Leandro may have violated elements of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the federal appeals panel in San Francisco ruled Tuesday.

The panel reversed a District Court decision that the city's zoning laws were "neutral" and so could not directly affect the church's religious beliefs. It also found that the lower court had improperly rejected a realtor's testimony that there were no other sites in the city where the church could construct a building that would hold its burgeoning membership.

Blocking the construction interfered with one of the church's core beliefs, Faith Fellowship had argued, noting that the congregation must worship together as one body on Sundays and hold Sunday school services.

Rejection of the church's core beliefs satisfies a central component of the religious land use act, the panel found.

"In spite of the church's allegations about its core beliefs, the District Court accepted the city's contention that the church could continue to conduct three separate Sunday services or could acquire several smaller properties throughout the city and relocate some of its operations off site," wrote U.S. District Judge Kevin Duffy, sitting on the three-judge panel by designation from Manhattan. "The District Court's flat rejection of the church's characterization of its core beliefs runs counter to the Supreme Court's admonition that while 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."

Faith Fellowship, which is part of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, purchased property in San Leandro's industrial zone after it outgrew its former location. Around the same time, the city began a process to create an "assembly use" overlay zone in the industrial area, which had been set aside to "preserve an environment for industrial and technological activity," according to the ruling.

While the city ultimately approved the overlay zone, it left the church's new property out of it. The city then unanimously rejected the church's application for a zoning exception, finding that the property was too close to businesses that used hazardous materials.

The church sued, alleging violations of the religious land use act and the First and 14th Amendments.

The District Court granted the city summary judgment, reasoning that the city had not violated the act because zoning laws are neutral and do not trigger the act's strict scrutiny standard. The lower court also found that the city had a legitimate goal to preserve the land in question for industrial use.

But the appeals panel was unconvinced.

"Even if we assume without deciding that the city's interest is compelling, we believe there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the city used the least restrictive means to achieve its interest," Judge Duffy wrote. "While the city may prefer to preserve [the property] for industrial use, the city presents no evidence that it could not achieve the same goals by using other property within its jurisdiction for that purpose."

The panel also rejected the lower court's finding that a neutral zoning code necessarily allows the city to ignore its responsibilities under the religious land use law.

"The District Court, by concluding that the zoning code as a neutral law of general applicability could impose only an incidental burden on religious exercise, committed reversible legal error," the ruling states. "This conclusion misinterprets our precedent and effectively writes [the] substantial burden provision out of [the religious land use act]."

The panel reversed the lower court's grant of summary judgment, finding that the church had raised triable issues as to whether city violated the act by imposing a substantial burden on the church's religious exercise.

Faith Fellowship and the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel were represented by the Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute, which hailed the 9th Circuit's ruling Tuesday.

"This is a victory for every religious institution on the West Coast," Pacific Justice President Brad Dacus in a statement. "The Ninth Circuit took a great step today toward leveling the playing field for churches and religious groups seeking to start, expand or relocate."

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