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Yorba Linda Church Holds Sway Over City, Critics Say

August 08, 2004|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

Some Yorba Linda residents are wondering whether their City Council has forgotten the part of the Constitution guaranteeing the separation of church and state.

To hear them tell it, the city's leaders are so cozy with the most powerful church in town that they afford it special treatment, most recently in the form of a 55-year "sweetheart" lease on 33 acres of prime real estate for a Christian high school.

It's a charge the council denies, arguing that the lease is in the best interests of the city and that the church -- Yorba Linda Friends -- is simply a good neighbor equal to any other.

"We are very proud of all of the places of worship in Yorba Linda," Mayor Ken Ryan said, "and they are all treated the same." In making development decisions, he said, "we consider the neighbors and other issues, and this project is no different. We try to help all of our religious facilities out, but not at the expense of residents."

Yet the council's handling of the school, critics contend, proves something they've long suspected: The church has too much power.

Two council members have ties to the church, and candidates have long sought its influence to get into office. A picture of the then-pastor was featured in a late 1990s campaign mailer. And Yorba Linda Friends Church is one of the largest landowners in town.

John Gullixson, a former councilman who says he got "a tremendous amount of support" from the church during his 12 years in office -- including contributions from members of its governing council -- described it as "more of an interest group in the sense of its sheer size. You'd go to the Rotary Club, you'd go to the Chamber [of Commerce] -- it got to the point where a substantial percentage of the people attending those events were members of the church."

Councilwoman Keri Lynn Wilson, who attends Yorba Linda Friends Church -- also known as the Church on the Hill -- insists that her involvement there bears no relationship to her support for the school. "People who know me," she said, "know that my internal compass is fairly well set. There is no one who has undue influence over me. I strive to do what's best for the community as a whole."

Opponents, however, cite an ethical conflict in Wilson's failure to recuse herself. "How can you vote against something that your church is requesting," longtime council watcher Pat Nelson asked, "and then show up at services on Sunday?"

No one claims that Wilson or other city officials broke any laws -- which, in California, define conflicts of interest primarily in economic terms. But the issue has added another entry to a debate that's raged almost since the 63,000-strong city began: Just how powerful and important should its religious communities be, including one purported to be the nation's largest Quaker congregation?

"They are rich, they have numbers and they are actively involved," said Lee Day, a community activist who opposes the high school and is critical of Yorba Linda Friends, which attracts as many as 4,000 worshippers a week. "They just steamroll you."

Nelson said she is also troubled by the church's propensity for political success: "When they want something, it's very easy for them to mobilize support from their members."

That potential may not have been apparent in 1912 when the congregation was founded by a local group of Quakers, including Frank A. and Hannah M. Nixon, parents of the future president.

"There's a really long connection between the church and Yorba Linda, which was a major Quaker settlement -- that's how [the town] got on the map and grew," said Ed Rakochy, president of the city's Historical Conservancy.

Quakers were traditionally contemplative, apolitical and not prone to making loud public statements regarding civic policy. Over the years, however, that changed; the local church evolved -- as did many of its California counterparts -- beyond the staid and quiet boundaries of its Pennsylvania past.

It has metamorphosed, Rakochy said. "It's really not a Quaker organization anymore."

The church's current pastor, Matthew Cork, did not return calls seeking comment on the church's role in the city. And its former spiritual leader -- Pastor John Werhas, who led the congregation for 17 years before leaving in 2003 after a dispute with church elders -- declined, through a spokeswoman, to discuss his tenure.

Chuck Bittick, however, a longtime church member and former Yorba Linda planning commissioner, acknowledged that Yorba Linda Friends "has tried to be influential in lots of ways." One of its earliest tactics, he said, involved owning the city's first -- and, at the time, only -- liquor license. "They didn't think that a bar should be in the city," Bittick said. "They bought the license so that nobody else could have it."

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