Maybe there’s something to the idea – at least as it relates to trying to get anything done when a local government entity is involved – that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission. Examples abound: A cafe wants to put a few bistro tables and some chairs out on the sidewalk, but doesn’t want to fight over obtaining an encroachment permit, so they put the tables and chairs out and wait to get dinged over it – or not, depending on how closely that city is paying attention. A homeowner deviates from a landscaping plan submitted for a building permit, and hopes the inspector doesn’t notice the promised drought-tolerant plants meant to go along the fence never made it into the ground.

But consider the case of New Harvest Christian Fellowship, a storefront evangelical church in Salinas. They skipped the permission part, don’t seem all that interested in forgiveness and instead plowed straight ahead into litigation. In a federal lawsuit filed Jan. 23 against the city of Salinas, attorneys for the church claim the city is violating the church’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The story goes back to January 2018, when New Harvest Pastor Ignacio Torres had the first of four meetings with city staff to discuss the church’s intent to buy the empty Beverly’s Fabrics building in Oldtown and repurpose it into a sanctuary and multi-use facility. During those meetings, which spanned between January and March of last year, city staff told him zoning code prohibited religious assembly or private club meetings from ground-floor retail space facing the three blocks of Main Street in downtown.

But, as Torres said during multiple public meetings, God told him to buy the building anyway. Torres said he would figure out how to obtain the conditional use permit allowing New Harvest to relocate, and that he planned on asking for a zoning code amendment, which the Salinas Planning Commission denied him last August.

That brings us to the lawsuit.

It’s filed by the Pacific Justice Institute, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group (PJI, for example, has endorsed conversion therapy for gays and lesbians and claimed marriage equality would lead to legal polygamy and incest, according to SPLC). The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, alleges Salinas’ zoning impacts the church’s ability to exercise its faith.

New Harvest currently rents about 4,600 square feet (curiously, it’s also in ground floor space in the zone where religious gathering isn’t an allowable use) and it can only accommodate about 165 people. If they were allowed to open in the whole of the Beverly’s building, the church would have 11,750 square feet at its disposal and could accommodate seating for 289.

The city “is substantially burdening the church’s ability to provide fellowship with each other, perform acts of religious service and worship God by denying access to a new facility that can accommodate a larger religious service,” the suit states. It adds the church has spent $10,000 in fees for processing its conditional use permit application, and pays a monthly mortgage of $5,185.56, plus annual insurance of $3,408. Also, because the building is empty, it doesn’t qualify for a property tax exemption, so add annual property taxes of $11,557.

It’s a lot of money to spend on a building you can’t use, but the city isn’t saying New Harvest can’t use the whole building, just that they can’t use the ground floor retail space. There’s a second floor, which church leaders have deemed not usable owing to ceiling height. The city suggested they open the lower floor as a bookstore or other retail use that would align with the city’s downtown vibrancy plan, but they consider that a non-starter.

Salinas City Attorney Chris Callihan says the city has no comment on the suit. Kevin Snider, the PJI attorney representing the church, says his client tried and failed to reach rapprochement with the city, so a lawsuit it is.

In 2010, Snider says, PJI won a similar case against the city of San Leandro brought by Faith Fellowship Church. That victory carried a $2.3 million payout by the city.

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