- The Washington Times - Monday, February 17, 2003

A religious discrimination suit has been filed against a California county after it charged a Christian church an hourly fee for using a public building that other community groups can use free.
The American Center for Law and Justice filed the federal suit against Kern County, Calif., on behalf of New Life Assembly, a church in the central California town of Delano.
Kern County assessed the church $621 to use the county-owned Delano Veterans of Foreign Wars Center for a three-day event last November. Nearly two-thirds of that amount ($450) was charged specifically because of the religious nature of the event.
The lawsuit says New Life Assembly and its minister, Pastor Ray G. Mejia, reserved the center "for a series of meetings as a means to fulfill their Christian responsibilities to educate the public about the life-changing message of the Christian faith, to discuss how the gospel can deal with the issues of stress, drug addiction, life's struggles, family problems, needs of the community, and the like."
The meetings were free and open to anyone. They were held "both as a requirement of their Christian faith and as a service to the community," the lawsuit says.
"The county has no business penalizing a religious organization by imposing a usage fee because the content of the group's event is religious in nature," said Stuart J. Roth, senior counsel of ACLJ, a public-interest law firm in Virginia Beach that specializes in cases involving infringement of religious freedom.
Mr. Roth added: "The policy in place only points to one conclusion: The county discriminates against religious organizations. … They seem to think they can get away with taxing religious usage."
The suit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Fresno, contends that the county's policy violates the first and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution. It asks the court to declare the policy invalid and unconstitutional and to grant injunctive relief "to ensure that the discriminatory policy does not continue to be applied."
Named as defendants in the suit are Kern County; the Kern County Board of Supervisors; and Bob Addison, director of the Kern County Parks and Recreation Department.
Tom Morgan, deputy counsel for Kern County, said yesterday that he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on the merits of the case. He said lawyers in his unit's litigation section may be aware of the suit but probably have not seen it.
Robert Lerude, assistant director of parks and recreation for Kern County, also said he had not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment.
"Defendants have enacted ordinances which expressly single out nonprofit religious organizations to pay certain fees to use the county facilities while allowing nonreligious, nonprofit organizations to use the same facilities without paying such fees. The county's ordinances, policies and practices violate plaintiffs' civil rights," according to the complaint.
A factor in the dispute is the county's definition of "nonprofit user."
The suit points out that New Life Assembly is a nonprofit organization under both federal and California law. Kern County, however, defines a "nonprofit user" as "any governmental entity or a club association, corporation or group other than a religious organization, which is exempt from income taxation."
The county ordinance that defines "nonprofit user" stipulates that "users not meeting the criteria of a nonprofit user shall pay the following fees for building use: $50 per hour up to 6 hours, with a minimum 2-hour ($100) charge."
"Only religious organizations are excluded from the definition of 'nonprofit user,'" the suit states.
Among the groups that have used the center or other Kern County facilities at no charge are the Kiwanis Club, the Lions Club, the Mexican-American Pioneers, the Toastmasters, Legionarios del Trabajo and the California State Prison, Mr. Roth said.
Kern County law holds that "if the net proceeds and/or benefits from an event will serve solely charitable or community purposes, the sponsoring entity shall be considered a 'nonprofit user,' irrespective of its status otherwise."

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