Calif. County Sued for Religious Discrimination

Randy Hall | Evening Editor | Monday, February 17, 2003

Calif. County Sued for Religious Discrimination

( - Officials in Kern County, Calif., should not have charged a Christian church an hourly fee to use a county-owned facility that is made available to other community groups without cost, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court last week.

The suit was filed by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) in U.S. District Court in Fresno on behalf of New Life Assembly, a Christian congregation in Delano, Calif., and its pastor, Rev. Ray Mejia.

The ACLJ contends that the church faced religious discrimination when the county charged it $621 to use the county-owned Delano Veterans of Foreign Wars Center for a series of religious events in November. Of the $621 paid to use the site, $450 was charged specifically because of the religious nature of the programs.

"The county has no business penalizing a religious organization because the content of that group's event is religious in nature," said Stuart Roth, senior counsel of the ACLJ. "The policy in place only points to one conclusion: The county discriminates against religious organizations.

"We're hopeful the court will provide the corrective action needed to ensure that such discriminatory action is stopped," Roth stated.

In 2000, the county's Parks and Recreation Department published a memorandum on religious activities in county buildings.

According to the suit, this policy states that "religious activities such as a service, confirmation, first communion, etc.," would require payment of an hourly usage fee, while activities such as "youth activities, pot lucks, special events, etc.," would be "viewed as secular and non-religious in nature" and require no such fee.

The suit contends that a wide variety of organizations use the county facilities, including Toastmasters, Lion's Club, Kiwanis Club, and Mexican-American Pioneers, and many of these groups are not charged as the church was.

Named as defendants in the suit are Kern County, the Board of Supervisors and the director of the county Parks and Recreation Department. The suit asks the court to declare the policy invalid and unconstitutional, as well as grant injunctive relief to ensure that the discriminatory policy does not continue to be applied.

When contacted for comment, Kern County officials would not discuss the pending lawsuit.

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