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 ...

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