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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court Blocks Appeal of Megachurch Case on First Day of 2011/2012 Term

On October 3, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the City of San Leandro’s appeal of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in favor of Faith Fellowship Foursquare Church, a 2,000-member church that sought to open a new church in an industrial zone. 
The facts are set out in the Ninth Circuit decision in International Church of the Foursquare Gospel v. City of San Leandro.  The church had contracted to purchase a parcel of land zoned in the City’s industrial district.  At the time the church signed the contract, churches were not allowed in the IP district.  The church applied for a zoning text and map amendment.  Shortly thereafter, the City decided to amend its zoning code to create an assembly use overlay district.  The overlay district would cover approximately 200 parcels of land in various non-residential zoning districts.  In order to establish an assembly use on its property, an owner would have to establish that the property met eight criteria.
During the hearing process for the zoning code amendments, the church closed on the purchase of its property.  After the zoning code amendments were approved, the church applied for approval of its proposed church.  The City denied the application because it did not meet two of the eight criteria under the new overlay district requirements, and the church sued. 
A federal judge had previously dismissed the church's suit, but the Ninth Circuit held that the church was entitled to define its own religious mission and could argue at a trial that its rights outweighed the City's revenue needs.  The Ninth Circuit determined that although the zoning code amendments were facially neutral and generally applicable, the City’s individualized assessment of the church’s rezoning application was not because (1) that there were no alternative sites readily available to the church; (2) the church’s core beliefs required that all congregants worship at the same time and same place; (3) all 196 parcels identified as appropriate for the overlay district failed to meet at least one of the eight criteria; and (4) the City’s interest in protecting properties for industrial uses was not compelling. 

The church sold the building at a loss last year and claims damages of nearly $4 million. The U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari means that this case will move forward to trial.


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