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Court dismisses arguments that church isn't 'religious'


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Rejecting the argument that a church is not “religious,” a court Friday dismissed most of a lawsuit against a congregation’s plan to move into a former YMCA building.

Godspeak Calvary Chapel Church in Thousand Oaks, California, was sued by neighbors of the building, who argued a church should not be considered a religious organization entitled to protection under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

But on Friday, the Ventura County Superior Court dismissed most of the case brought by the Dos Vientos Community Preservation Association and Donald Armstrong.

Liberty Counsel, which defended the church, said the alleged “association” that filed suit consisted of a few individuals who also insisted the church’s using of the building had not been cleared under the California Environmental Quality Act, the CEQA.

The lawsuit had Liberty Counsel representing a nonprofit foundation that had purchased the building and entered into an agreement to rent it to the church.

“The city and Liberty Counsel argued, and the court now agrees, that CEQA does not apply, and that the plaintiffs missed the deadline to file a claim. The CEQA claim represents about 90 percent of the claim filed by the plaintiffs,” Liberty Counsel’s report said.

The claims were dismissed with prejudice, so they cannot be refiled. Liberty Counsel said its lawyers would return to court on June 20 for a hearing for the dismissal of the few last claims.

The city had supported the church’s plans, but “a few neighbors formed an ‘association'” and sued, Liberty Counsel said.

They were pleased with the YMCA being in the building but objected to its use by a church.

The foundation bought the structure in 2018. It’s in a commercial complex that includes both residential and commercial projects.

The city originally approved an environmental impact report and development permit as required under CEQA and other state laws, Liberty Counsel said.

“Part of the consideration for approval of the project was that the developer would donate a parcel of land to the local YMCA for it to build a center in the neighborhood. The YMCA built and operated a center before it closed in December 2017.”

The foundation then bought the land.

The city earlier determined that no new environmental assessment was needed since the church would make only minor changes to the property.

And the zoning allows the property to be used by a church.

“We are pleased that the Ventura County Superior Court dismissed the major portion of this frivolous lawsuit against a Christian church,” said Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel.

“It is a violation of the law to welcome a YMCA but refuse a church. We are thankful that the city of Thousand Oaks supports the church and that the court ruled in our favor. We look forward to the full dismissal of this case this month.”


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