Elsinore Christian Center v. City of Lake Elsinore, CV 01-04842 SVW (RCx) (C.D. Cal. 6/23/2003)

Decision Date23 June 2003
Docket NumberCV 01-04842 SVW (RCx).
CourtU.S. District Court — Central District of California
PartiesELSINORE CHRISTIAN CENTER, a California non-profit corporation, and GARY HOLMES, Plaintiffs, v. CITY OF LAKE ELSINORE, a California corporation, et al., Defendants.

STEPHEN V. WILSON, District Judge.


Plaintiffs Elsinore Christian Center and Church member Gary Holmes (collectively "Church" or "Plaintiffs") brought this action against Defendants the City of Lake Elsinore and five individual members of the City Council (collectively "City" or "Defendants") after the Lake Elsinore Planning Commission denied the Church's application for a conditional use permit ("CUP") to operate a church on 217 N. Main Street, Lake Elsinore, California (the "Subject Property," "Property," or "Site").

Now before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment is DENIED, and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED IN PART as to Plaintiffs' Second Cause of Action. The Court will issue a separate Order addressing the remaining portions of Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment and Plaintiffs' Motion under Rule 56(f).

A. Factual Summary

The Church is currently located in the downtown area of Lake Elsinore and believes that it has been called by God to minister in that area. The Church has been operating downtown for more than twelve years. The Church's current location lacks on-site parking, however, and church members are forced to park on the street. Certain events — the monthly Open Air Market and the annual Lake Elsinore Classic — involve closed roads and further exacerbate parking inadequacies; some congregants are often forced to park at a considerable distance from the Church. The Church complains that these parking issues pose particular difficulties for elderly Church members and those with disabilities, and that the current facility is too small to accommodate a growing congregation. As a result, the Church seeks to relocate to the Subject Property, situated three blocks away, which is larger and possesses more parking.

The Subject Property and Church are located in downtown Lake Elsinore, an economically depressed area characterized by urban blight. The current tenant of the Property, Food Smarts, is a discount food store and recycling business. Food Smarts leases the Property from its current owner, the Elsinore Naval Military School ("School"). Because Food Smarts is a month-to-month tenant, the School is legally entitled to evict Food Smart on thirty days' notice. The School is willing to sell the Property to the Church, and the Church has entered into a purchase agreement with the School.

Both the Subject Property and the Church are located in an area of the City zoned as C-1, or "Neighborhood Commercial." The following uses are among those that may be located in C-1 zones as a matter of right: apparel stores, appliance stores, bicycle shops, food stores, florists, general merchandise stores, hardware stores, health and exercise clubs, hobby supply stores, jewelry stores, media shops, music stores, personal service establishments, pet shops, restaurants, schools for dance and music, sporting goods stores, toy shops, and sellers of vehicle parts.

The following uses may be located in C-1 zones subject to a CUP: automatic car washes, bars, churches, drive-through or drive-in establishments, arcades, gas stations, hotels, mortuaries, motels, private clubs and lodges, restaurants with outside eating areas, small animal veterinary clinics, and any other use having similar characteristics and in accord with the zone's purposes.

Additionally, the Subject Property is located in an area classified as "blighted" by the Rancho Laguna Redevelopment Project which acts as an overlay to the City's zoning provisions. After entering into a purchase agreement with the School, the Church applied for a CUP. City staff prepared a report recommending approval of the CUP, subject to twenty-six conditions, to which the Church consented. However, the City's Planning Commission denied the CUP, citing loss of a needed service (the grocery store and recycling business), loss of tax revenue, insufficient parking at the Subject Property, and the belief that denial of the CUP would not work a substantial burden on the Church, as it could continue to operate at its present downtown location.

The Church's appeal of the CUP denial was rejected unanimously by the City Council. During the Council's hearing on this matter, City residents spoke out on both sides of the appeal. Church members described their difficulties in attending church, while downtown residents and Food Smarts employees cited the need for a grocery store within walking distance and the loss of jobs that would result if Food Smarts were evicted. Other downtown residents claimed that the presence of the Church would benefit the area.

B. Procedural Posture

On May 30, 2001 the Church sued the City in an attempt to either invalidate the applicable zoning rules or compel the City to issue a CUP in this instance.

The Church alleges that (1) the City's entire zoning Ordinance, (2) the rules regarding the C-1 zones as applied to Plaintiffs, and (3) the City's denial of the Church's CUP application, violate (1) the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), (2) the U.S. Constitution, and (3) the California Constitution. The Complaint thereby presents an intricate analytical challenge, consisting of claims at three levels of generality, brought under four sections of RLUIPA, four provisions of the U.S. Constitution, and one section of the California Constitution — a total of approximately two dozen discrete yet interrelated claims.

"A fundamental and long-standing principle of judicial restraint requires that courts avoid reaching constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them." Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass'n, 485 U.S. 439, 445, 108 S. Ct. 1319 (1988). Thus, the Court intstructed the parties to focus initially on Plaintiffs' statutory claims, with specific attention to Plaintiffs' claim under Section 2(a) of RLUIPA. Plaintiffs moved for partial summary judgment on that claim.

The City, however, moved for summary judgment on all claims, placing the entire matter before the Court. Citing the Court's attempt to focus the issues, Plaintiffs declined a full briefing on most of their additional statutory and constitutional claims, and moved for a continuance pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. Rule 56(f) to permit additional discovery "and preparation" regarding certain claims. (See Pls.' Opp. to Def.'s Mot. for Summary Judgment, at 16.) The result is a mishmash of often incongruous pleadings, which fail to join issue in important respects. Meanwhile, the United States has intervened to defend the constitutionality of RLUIPA, should the Court reach that question.

Because Plaintiffs' claim under Section 2(a) of RLUIPA is not included in their Rule 56(f) Motion, because all elements of that claim have been fully briefed by both parties, and because both parties move for summary adjudication of that claim, the Court considers it in its entirety. The Court addresses the remaining claims in a separate Order.

C. Standard for Summary Judgment

Rule 56(c) requires summary judgment when the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Tarin v. County of Los Angeles, 123 F.3d 1259, 1263 (9th Cir. 1997). The moving party bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 2553 (1986).

That burden may be met by "`showing' — that is, pointing out to the district court — that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Id. at 325, 106 S. Ct. at 2554. Once the moving party has met its initial burden, Rule 56(e) requires the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and identify facts that show a genuine issue for trial. See id. at 323-34, 106 S. Ct. at 2553; Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 2510 (1986).

However, only genuine disputes — where the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party"over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Id. at 248; see also Arpin v. Santa Clara Valley Transp. Agency, 261 F.3d 912, 919 (9th Cir. 2001).

When deciding cross-motions for summary judgment, a district court retains the responsibility to examine the record to ensure that no disputed issues of fact exist, despite the parties' assurances to that effect. Fair Housing Council of Riverside County, Inc. v. Riverside Two, 249 F.3d 1132, 1136-37 (9th Cir. 2001); see Chevron USA, Inc. v. Cayetano, 224 F.3d 1030, 1038 n.6 (9th Cir. 2000).

A. Background of RLUIPA

On September 22, 2000, President Clinton signed into law the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 114 Stat. 803-807 (codified at 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc et seq.).

RLUIPA represents the latest act in an ongoing tug-of-war between Congress and the Supreme Court. In 1990, the Supreme Court decided Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 110 S. Ct. 1595 (1990), which held that rights under the Free Exercise Clause do not "relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a `valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes)...

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