The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) has appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after a lower court ruled that a church can be restricted in how it uses private property by a city.
New Harvest Christian Fellowship has rented space on Main Street in Salinas for more than 25 years.
Now roughly a congregation of 165 people, the church has outgrown its space. Its traditional worship services held on Sunday mornings is held in the building it rents but children who participate in Sunday school and children’s church services are required to leave the building and meet at a nearby dance studio– Dance Arts Studio Jeanne Robinson– located on Monterey St.
New Harvest Christian Fellowship, founded in 1981 by Pastor Richard and Yvonne Gallardo, has also helped plant churches in California: Union City (1985), Seaside (1986), Hollister (1988), Greenfield (1990), and San Jose (1991). New Harvest has also planted churches in Mexico in 1990, Santiago, Chile (1995), and six congregations in West Africa.
The church has been very much involved in the life of downtown Salinas, supporting community outreach programs, including providing meals to the needy at a local warming shelter, providing food and clothes to residents of China Town, and hosting family carnivals at various parks in the city.
After purchasing a larger building across the street from where it had been meeting in 2018, the city of Salinas implemented sharp restrictions for how the church could use the space. The city restricted how the church could use the second floor, and required it to create a dedicated retail space on the ground floor to an extent that was unworkable for them. A few feet down the street, city officials permitted theaters and live entertainment venues to operate without similar restrictions.
PJI sued, arguing the city violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. In late May, District Court Judge Susan Van Keulen ruled that Harvest Christian Fellowship, and churches in general, generate limited interest to the public, do not draw tourists, and therefore detract from the city’s goals of “vibrancy.”
The court ruled that the city was justified in promoting a “street of fun,” which prioritizes concert and entertainment venues, yet also includes nursing homes and post offices.
“Salinas deems churches as less deserving of equal treatment under the law than the live children’s theatre, two cinemas, and event center that share the City’s downtown corridor with New Harvest Fellowship,” Kevin Snider, PJI’s Chief Counsel and lead attorney for the case, argues. “Salinas’ zoning policy seeks to promote a lively pedestrian-friendly street scene by clearing out street-level religious assemblies. Since the lower court’s decision, ironically downtown Salinas has experienced a lively pedestrian street scene in the form of protests. Those types of assemblies may not be the fun City officials were hoping for to replace churches.”
“This continues to be one of the most striking examples of unequal treatment of a church in the land use context that we have seen in the past 20 years,” Brad Dacus, president of PJI, said.
The church argues that “a local congregation is more than a legal entity that provides religious activities,” according to the complaint. A church congregation “is comprised of people who come together to form one body with Jesus Christ as its head. Those who come to church come to “worship God, seek fellowship with each other, and perform acts of religious service also known as ministry.”
The complaint adds,
“The absence of people turned away because of lack of space during service results in the infliction of suffering in the body. The absence of these worshippers is, in a profound theological sense, a substantial burden on the religious practices of gathering together as one body for worship, fellowship and ministry.
“Turning worshippers away creates a substantial burden on the religious exercise of the church in its proselytizing efforts. In addition to engaging in activities which edify the believers who attend the worship services, many who are turned away are visitors to the church who are not Christians. These have been invited by congregants or come on their own because they are seeking spiritual help.”
By not allowing the church to meet in its space, the city is preventing non-members of the church from receiving help– and help they haven’t found anywhere else– through acts of service offered freely by church members, and through the sharing of the gospel.
In 2010, PJI won a similar case against the city of San Leandro brought by Faith Fellowship Church, which resulted in a $2.3 million payout by the city, according to Monterey County Weekly.