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Lake Elsinore settles lawsuit by church

The city agrees to pay a Christian center $1.2million after killing its relocation plan.

July 19, 2007|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

The city of Lake Elsinore on Wednesday agreed to pay a church more than $1.2 million to settle a discrimination case filed after the city rejected the church's plans to expand.

The Elsinore Christian Center argued that city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 six years ago by blocking its move to a larger location to accommodate a growing congregation. The city argued the church's plan to take over a grocery story would cause a loss of commercial-based taxes.

The city also said that the closing of the grocery store, which served elderly residents, would be a great loss to the community.

The church sued, saying the city violated its civil rights and the Religious Land Use Act, which Congress enacted to protect individuals, houses of worship and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning laws. The law prohibits cities from treating churches on less than equal terms with nonreligious institutions.

Although, the U.S. Central District Court determined the city violated the law in 2003, it also called the statute unconstitutional. That decision, however, was overruled by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year.

"We are thrilled for the church and the opportunity it will give them and it's a statement to other churches that they are protected under the law," said Jennifer Monk, an attorney who represented the church.

Attorney Ed Richards, who represented the city, said, "The city is pleased the litigation is over and glad it's resolved and pleased to get on to other things."

Lake Elsinore had appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but settled before a decision.

After being denied the desired property, the church moved to another Lake Elsinore location.

"Elsinore Christian Center stands as a great example nationally to religious organizations and churches that significant protection against religious discrimination by zoning and municipal officials is available," church attorney Robert Tyler said in a statement.

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jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

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