SOURCE: Horvitz & Levy LLP

August 05, 2014 15:11 ET

Harbor Missionary Church Files Emergency Motion in the Ninth Circuit to Continue Ministry to the Homeless

VENTURA, CA--(Marketwired - Aug 5, 2014) - Harbor Missionary Church, a nonprofit religious corporation, today filed an emergency motion (No. 14-56137) with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to continue its ministry to the homeless. For six years the church has provided clothing, food, showers, counseling and other support to thousands of homeless residents of the City of Ventura. Approximately 12 weeks ago, on May 15, after denying the church a permit to continue its ministry, police and code-enforcement officers from the City of Ventura arrived without warning and searched the church to ensure that it was no longer ministering to and feeding the homeless.

Since 2008, Harbor Missionary Church has welcomed the homeless into its church. "For the first four years, the City of Ventura did not require or even ask the church to apply for a special permit to serve the homeless," said Lisa Freeman, an attorney with Horvitz & Levy who is representing Harbor Missionary Church.

Then, in January of last year, the city told the church that it would need a separate, conditional-use permit, in addition to its church permit, to continue its ministry. The church applied for the permit the following month, but despite a City Staff Report recommending the granting of the permit subject to certain conditions, the Planning Commission late last year denied the permit in its entirety. The church appealed to the City Council, which deadlocked on May 12; as a result, the City Council took no action and under the City Council Protocols, the Planning Commission's decision to deny the permit became final.

The permit denial has forced the church to stop caring for the homeless, a particularly vulnerable group in our society. According to Freeman, many of the church's homeless congregants are not only poor, but are fleeing from domestic violence. The church, she said, had less than $37,000 in the bank at year end. "If it is not allowed to continue its ministry to the homeless during the appeals process, and without the donor and volunteer support for its ministry, it may not survive," Freeman added.

In addition to Freeman, Harbor Missionary Church is represented by John Taylor of Horvitz & Levy, by James Sonne and Jared Haynie of the Stanford Law School Religious Liberty Clinic, and by Michael McCollum and Claire Borthwick of Foley & Lardner LLP.

On May 14 of this year, the church filed a lawsuit in federal district court alleging that the permit denial violated the church's right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment and under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). On May 30, fifteen days after police had searched the church, Judge Manuel Real of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California (Case No. 2:14-cv-03730) granted a temporary restraining order allowing the church to continue its charitable work during the litigation. In its temporary restraining order, the district court recognized the church's homeless ministry as an exercise of religion, calling it "a significant part of Harbor's religious expression."

At a hearing on July 9, however, the district court denied the church's motion for a preliminary injunction, questioning the legitimacy of the church's belief that it was required to provide clothing, food, and other services to the poor at its church. In its appeal to the Ninth Circuit, the church alleges that the order erred in questioning the legitimacy of the church's religious beliefs and in finding that the least restrictive means of protecting the neighborhood surrounding the church was to shut down the homeless ministry completely.

"An immediate order is needed now so that the church can continue its ministry while the Ninth Circuit considers the church's appeal," Freeman said. "Every passing day without an injunction prevents the church from exercising its religion, in violation of federal law. And the loss of the church as a safe place to eat, bathe, and pray for the period of this appeal could be devastating to the church's homeless congregants," Freeman said.

Sam Gallucci, the church's head pastor, summed up the church's sentiment, "The church feels keenly the loss of its freedom to practice its faith and to follow Jesus Christ's command to help the poor and hungry."

The emergency motion that Harbor Missionary Church just filed, if granted, will allow the church to continue its homeless ministry until the Ninth Circuit determines whether the district court failed to protect the church's free exercise of religion as required by the First Amendment and RLUIPA.

Since 1957, Horvitz & Levy LLP has been dedicated to appellate litigation. One of the largest firms in the nation to practice exclusively in this area of the law, the firm is focused on winning appeals for professionals, individuals, businesses and organizations in a variety of industries. Based in Los Angeles, the firm handles matters involving business and commercial law, class actions, consumer law, entertainment law, the First Amendment, healthcare law, insurance law, intellectual property, labor and employment law, premises liability, products liability and toxic torts, public-entity liability and real property. On the net: http://www.horvitzlevy.com.

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