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Outdoor Church Going to Court in Land Fight

Huntington Beach cites zoning rules as Praise Christian seeks approval for indoor quarters.

March 15, 2004|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

When his congregation withered to only 12 and the collection plate returned nearly empty, Pastor Andrew Derek Anunciation figured it was time for action.

For more than two years, his tiny congregation at Praise Christian Center has held services outdoors in a Huntington Beach industrial lot amid an ongoing dispute with City Hall.

Anunciation believes the city has been standing squarely in the way of moving the church into a converted warehouse by requiring numerous -- and expensive -- permits and upgrades.

"People have called me a radical and other names. But we feel like what we've been going through is a storm," Anunciation said.

"And we're not doing this just for our tiny church, but for other religious groups too."

The church filed a federal lawsuit in October, alleging, among other things, that the city was violating its religious freedom. This tack makes tiny Praise Christian part of a growing legal battle between church and state.

More than three dozen mega-churches, colleges and synagogues in the state are fighting government regulations and zoning laws that they feel violate the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

The act is designed to give churches a tool for clearing away onerous government restrictions.

Huntington Beach officials deny that the Praise Christian Center has been treated unfairly or discriminated against.

The problem, according to Assistant City Atty. Scott Field, is that Anunciation "wants to put a church in a barn, and it's not designed for public assembly. The basic problem is fire code safety, and we expect that any public assembly [place] meets current fire safety requirements."

The solution, Field said, is for Praise Christian to reduce the size of the area it needs to less than 5,000 square feet, which would impose fewer restrictions and requirements. That offer was made to Anunciation but was refused, Field said.

"I just don't trust the city or the process any longer," Anunciation said.

The city has asked the judge to dismiss the portion of the lawsuit filed under the religious land-use law, claiming it's unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on the law's constitutionality.

An April 12 hearing on the case is scheduled before U.S. District Judge Gary Taylor in Santa Ana.

Until it was ordered out of the building in late 2001 because of zoning violations, Praise Christian held services inside a portion of a 28,000-square-foot converted warehouse at American Landscape Supply on Goldenwest Street. The church rents the space for $1,000 a month.

Since then, services have been held outdoors in the dirt. Churchgoers gather under a canopy when it's cold or it rains. The conditions, Anunciation says, have taken a toll. Membership once stood at 75. It's now at 12.

Some church members' hay fever, arthritis and other ailments prevent them from attending the outdoor services.

"I suffer from arthritis and hay fever," Roseanne De La Rosa of Fountain Valley said in a letter that is part of the court case. She said that the dampness and cool weather aggravate her pain.

Another church member uses a portable oxygen device and has breathing problems when exposed to temperature variances.

"I can't walk and pull my oxygen through the dirt," wrote Jo Benson of Huntington Beach, who also said she was forced to stop attending tent services.

Before the church can move back inside, the city says it must install a fire sprinkler system, fire alarms, upgrade the plumbing and put in noise buffers, among other improvements. The city is also asking for $44,000 in fees for improvements to Goldenwest Street, which runs in front of the property.

In all, the church is facing as much as $586,000 in improvements and fees to move into the building -- a "substantial burden," said Douglas L. Edgar, one of Praise Christian's attorneys with the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, a legal advocacy group that defends traditional religious rights.

Anunciation said he believes the city wants to move him out and then push out the owner of the landscape property, Ron Brindle, who has had the property for decades. In its place, he says, it envisions a housing subdivision.

The city denies the charge.

One of the legal arguments focuses on the building being deemed safe for as many as 81 landscape supply customers, but not for church members, a point raised by Anunciation, his attorneys and legal advocates.

"Eighty-one people can be in that building talking about a water fountain," Anunciation said. "But if you talk about God and the Bible, then you have to have a conditional use permit."

For two years, Anunciation has led a one-man battle with the city's planning department, Fire Department and code enforcement officials. "You name the department and I've been in every one of them," he said.

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