The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a motion to intervene in a zoning dispute between a California city and a church seeking to relocate into a commercial zone.

Elsinore Christian Center v. City of Lake Elsinore tests the application of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), enacted last year. The law protects churches by requiring local governments to demonstrate a "compelling governmental interest" before restricting the use of church-owned real estate.

Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), a nonprofit legal-defense organization based in Citrus Heights, California, filed the suit on behalf of Elsinore Christian Center in May. The City of Lake Elsinore has refused to grant the church a permit to renovate and hold services in a commercially zoned building it has in escrow from Elsinore Naval and Military School.

The city contests the constitutionality of the church's RLUIPA claim. However, an attorney for the Justice Department filed a motion supporting the RLUIPA claim at a recent hearing in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Judge Stephen Wilson will decide on the church's motion for summary judgment in coming weeks.

Brad Dacus, PJI president, says the Justice Department's intervention provides research support, conveys the weight of the precedent to the judge, and will cause city and local governments to be better aware of how to apply zoning laws according to RLUIPA.

"No city or local government can prevent a church from building where God has called them to build unless they can prove a legitimate and compelling health or safety issue, by law," Dacus says.

Rich Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, says he expects the strength of the case, coupled with the Justice Department's support, to result in a "slam dunk" for Dacus and the church.



Related Elsewhere:

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty offers an Internet resource on The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The site includes the text of the act, background information, and court documents for Elsinore Christian Center v. City of Lake Elsinore.

The Pacific Justice Institute distributed a press release on the Department of Justice's intervention.

Christianity Today covered the enactment of RLUIPA last September.

ReligiousTolerance.org has resources and information on RLUIPA.

According to the Temcula Valley News, this is not the first time the Elsinore Christian Center has had a run-in with the city council.

Coverage of the Zoning Case in the local North County Times includes:

Decision on Lake Elsinore church-city dispute expected soon (8/27/01)
Elsinore Christian Center sues city (6/1/01)
City's zoning law unconstitutional, attorneys say (6/12/01)
Church wants grocery store for new location (2/26/01)

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