Two churches in San Diego, Vision Church and Kairos Christian Church, have been subject to discrimination and financial hardship due to marijuana companies that want to take over their local communities. Advocates for Faith and Freedom is working with both churches to help them in their fight to keep their church homes and avoid hefty penalties levied by the city of San Diego. We have already filed one lawsuit on behalf of Vision Church against the city and are gearing up for a second.
As many California residents know, the state legalized recreational use of marijuana on January 1, 2018. In response, many cities have established legal policies and procedures to regulate the growing cannabis industry. San Diego requires cannabis retail and production organizations to establish their businesses at least 1,000 feet away from sensitive land, including churches, schools, and parks. Unfortunately that has not stopped marijuana companies from setting up shop next to churches.
One marijuana company, Cannversions Inc., disregarded that regulation and settled their business within 1,000 feet of Vision Church. Upholding the 1,000 foot mandate, the city denied Cannversions the Conditional Use Permit (CUP). After Cannversion’s failed attempt to purchase the church property to solve their permitting issue, the marijuana company developed a new strategy. They decided to complain to the city that the church was not legally entitled to be at its current location because it violated technical building requirements.
Siding with the marijuana business, San Diego city sent Vision Church a notice stating that the church had to leave its current location immediately because it is located in a flood zone. However, Vision Church has official documents from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to address the flood hazard concerns. The document explicitly states that the church property is not a flood hazard. In fact, before the church property was built in the 1980’s, the land developer filled the church property to raise it above flood hazard levels. Additionally, the city had no issues with any of the medical clinics, gyms, and other business in the same zone, which could only mean that they have singled out Vision Church because of Cannversions’ complaint. The notice threatens that if the church does not relocate, it will face fines of $500 per violation per day ($4000 daily).
The lead Pastor of Vision Church, Andy Ballon (right), has been shocked that the city would force the church to relocate. Vision Church is a staple in its community with its extensive outreach programs for the homeless and foster communities. It has been at its current location for over eight years with no issues.
The city of San Diego has disregarded all of these facts and has shown a clear alliance with the cannabis company over the church. As Pastor Ballon explained, “As a church we're not paying high taxes to the government, but the marijuana production facility will supply local marijuana dispensaries and bring in a significant amount of tax revenue.” Thankfully, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) protects churches from local officials using zoning laws as a weapon against churches.
Advocates is now involved and has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the City of San Diego on January 31, 2019. The lawsuit is based on San Diego’s unequal treatment of a church to similarly situated assembly uses, which is unconstitutional and in violation of RLUIPA. In other words, San Diego is discriminating against Vision Church by allowing secular assemblies such as private clubs, lodges, fraternal organizations, and funeral homes in the same zone, but prohibiting the Christian church.
Unfortunately, shortly after Vision Church started its fight to stay at its current location, Vista Prime Management, another marijuana production company, applied for a CUP right next door to Kairos Christian Church. The similarities between Vision Church’s circumstances and Kairos Church are undeniable. After San Diego’s recommended denial of Vista Prime Management’s CUP based on the 1,000 foot proximity of Kairos church, the marijuana corporation sent in a complaint about Kairos Church. This quickly triggered a notice from the City informing Kairos Church that it was operating without the proper permits.
The city granted Vista Prime’s CUP, allowing the marijuana company to operate directly next door to Kairos Church (right). The city explained that the 1,000 foot regulation did not apply to Vista Prime because the church was “not legally in existence” due to technical building violations. The city is now requiring Kairos Church to spend thousands of dollars to meet zoning requirements that secular assemblies in the same neighborhood do not have to meet.
Kairos Church has worked tirelessly to satisfy all of the permitting and building requirements imposed by the city as a condition to stay in their place of worship. Just one of these many hurdles is the city’s claim that the church does not meet parking requirements. In order to fix the parking issue, San Diego is requiring that Kairos Church acquire a Neighborhood Development Permit (NDP), which will cost the church approximately $20,000. An NDP, however, is not required of many other businesses, including movie theaters which have higher parking demands and generate more traffic daily than churches generate weekly.
As with Vision Church, the city of San Diego is using its zoning code to discriminate against Kairos Church for the benefit of a marijuana corporation. Advocates will likely file a second RLUIPA lawsuit against San Diego if the city continues to levy fees and penalties against Kairos Church.
We have a strong case against San Diego but there is a long road ahead of us as we fight for these churches in federal court. As the marijuana industry continues to grow, so does the potential for other RLUIPA lawsuits against bureaucracies that prioritize the revenue generated from tax dollars over the survival of religious freedoms and congregations that serve at the heart of our communities.
In His Service,
P.S. We invite you to please pray for us as we fight this cultural battle and consider giving to our ministry. These efforts to protect our religious freedoms are only made possible by your faithful prayers and generous donations.