Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship says it will file a federal lawsuit against Riverside County if the county continues its ban on churches in Temecula wine country, an area that is up for expansion as a new plan for the region wends its way through the public hearing process.
A second public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday over a proposed new plan for Temecula wine country and the fate of churches or other religious institutions there. The hearing could turn into a showdown between vintners, who mostly don’t want churches, and the lone church in wine country and its many supporters.
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Calvary Chapel Pastor Clark Van Wick said he met with a few vintners in an attempt to appease them but was told, “We don’t want your kind out here.”
Hundreds of Christians and church members are expected to pack Wednesday’s planning commission hearing. To thank supporters, the church will serve Chick-fil-A to all those who attend during the lunchtime break.
Wednesday’s hearing is at 9 a.m. at Temecula City Hall in Old Town.
“On a smaller scale, this is Chick-fil-A part two. People are just getting fed up with this anti-Christian mentality that unfortunately pervades the media so often. We hope that people of all faiths and persuasions will recognize that church is a good thing for people and a good thing for communities, and you can’t just zone them out because you have a disagreement with them over a particular use,” said Robert Tyler, an attorney with Murrieta-based Advocates for Faith & Freedom, a national non-profit legal organization whose aim is to protect religious liberty and traditional values in the courts and other public forums.
The first public hearing for the Wine Country Community Plan, which maps out the future expansion of Temecula Wine Country, was held in late July and drew many opponents to the clause in the proposed plan that would stop churches from building or expanding there. Several people testified churches should be allowed.
Tyler said the church hopes it won’t have to sue and the commission will reconsider, which commissioners said they would after the first hearing.
“We’ll see what happens. How soon we will file suit depends how the process goes, and Lord willing, we never will,” Tyler said.
A possible lawsuit would be filed in federal court and would allege that the county is violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that enforces the Constitutional right of houses of worship to be free from discriminatory land use regulations. Tyler says the law guarantees that religious assemblies must be treated on equal terms as non-religious assemblies in land-use regulations.
Calvary Chapel, located off Rancho California Road between Calle Contento and Anza Road, has purchased an adjacent property to expand. The church says it’s overcrowded and wants to build a new sanctuary and additional facilities, including a K-8 school for 125 students. The church has applied to the county for a zone change and the request is pending, Tyler said.
Concurrently, the new wine country plan is going through the process with the proposal to exclude churches. “We’re fighting on two battle fronts,” said Tyler.
Advocates for Faith & Freedom says local churches have submitted more than 3,200 letters to the county asking to overturn the proposed ban. The group also is spearheading a media and ad campaign.
Calvary Chapel started out meeting in an old barn in Wine Country before churches were barred. In 1999, the pastor received permission from the county to remodel the barn and build a new church.
Tyler said the county then “quietly” passed a new ordinance banning churches from Wine Country. Calvary was grandfathered-in as an existing non-conforming use but it hasn’t been allowed to expand. The church says houses of worship and private schools should be designated as permitted uses.
Among other things, the Wine Country Community Plan would allow about 100 wineries at build-out, set up a network of trails, double the number of residential homes and bring sewers the wineries.
Amy Bentley is a local writer and regular contributor to SWRNN.