LONG BEACH, California, Feb. 26, 2020 /PRNewswire/ -- The following is an open letter from Jonathan Thompson, founder of Good Seed Community Development Corporation ("Good Seed"), an organization that grew out of the Good Seed Church, whose mission is to help youth not only live but thrive by providing supportive, nurturing, specialized care for homeless young people in California through supportive housing, job training, comprehensive services, and individual planning:
Across the United States, we assume that the modern-day church is free of persecution from government. However, through land use and zoning laws, and procedural processes, the local church is facing levels of opposition, suppression, and delay in cities throughout the country. The Atlantic previously wrote an article, The Quiet Religious-Freedom Fight That Is Remaking America, in 2017 regarding a small town church nestled in Bergen County, New Jersey. However, the quiet religious freedom fight is making its way across the United States from the East Coast to the West Coast. And, just like a basket is a combination of individual strands woven together to form a unit so, too, are the systematic means and methods to oppress the modern-day church.
The church (meaning an organization or assembly, from the Latin word ecclesia), in all of its splendor, was established and identified directly as the body of the Lord Christ Jesus. The church is designed to be a local group of believers who come together to glorify God; seek fellowship; spread the gospel; support and nourish the saints; visit those in jail; care for the poor, widows, and orphans; and, ultimately, to be the light on a hill pointing to God the Father.
However, those who do not see the value, who do not believe or only see the occasional blemishes in the church, are using local laws (such as land use laws) to delay, deter or stop churches from being established or from operating. Throughout the United States, there are countless stories of local governments such as cities and counties establishing laws, fees, zoning codes, and procedural processes that make it extremely difficult for churches to operate. This continues to occur despite the passage of federal legislation such as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which was designed to prevent local government and municipalities from obstructing churches through discriminatory zoning procedures and laws.
In many ways, the church is not intended to conform to the fluctuating ways of the world. However, when done properly and implemented justly, local laws benefit the church such as those that ensure proper implementation of egress and handicapped designs, energy efficiency, fire safety, and other best practices.
However, when zoning and land use laws are implemented maliciously, they essentially prohibit the legal operation of churches within local systems and codes. This results in unnecessary conflict, delays in the gospel, and wasted resources. It also forces orphans, widows, and the homeless to seek support elsewhere.
The City of Long Beach, California, for example, codes, zoning laws, systems, and procedures are an example of laws used to suppress the local church. This image shows the requirements a church must meet in order to be legally established in an area of Long Beach, including the fee schedule to submit an application for a permit and local requirements to operate, which in this case is a Minor Conditional Use Permit. The relevant fees are highlighted in yellow.
In comparing the zoning codes for a church, theater, and adult entertainment business, the chart shows that a church is the only use requiring a Minor Conditional Use Permit (which would cost over $4,000) and would have to undergo a lengthy discretionary conditional use approval process, which can take a few months to complete if approved.
These requirements can greatly affect the success of a new church or the relocation of an existing church by redirecting time, energy, and resources away from their core mission. This raises the question of whether these restrictions are put in place to intentionally deter churches and other faith-based institutions from operating in Long Beach. In regards to layout, seating requirements, and operational structures, there are clear similarities between a church and a live theater or movie theater. However, a theater and adult entertainment use is permitted by right while a church is subject to a lengthy discretionary approval process.
The Christian faith believes the evil one uses any number of tools at his disposal, and this can be one of them. In these instances, prayer, discernment, voting, and active civic engagement are paramount for faith-based organizations; without these efforts, the subtle attempts to block their existence may succeed and will impact wider communities and future generations.
The Good Seed Church is one institutional example of land use discrimination and oppression in the City of Long Beach. Their church focuses on meeting the spiritual and physical needs of Transitional-Age Youth who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. They paid the Minor Conditional Use Permit fee in April of 2016, submitted the required documents for review, and participated in numerous meetings with the city's Planning Department. However, they were still met with opposition and ultimately realized it was never about jumping through the hoops; it was about the church living out its mission to glorify God in fellowship and service, caring for the poor and the orphans, and ultimately to be a light. Good Seed believes youth â€” homeless or not â€” need a church that can meet their spiritual, physical, and mental health needs. They need showers, meals, a support team trained in mental health best practices, and mentors to show the love of God in a supportive and welcoming environment. As the Good Seed Church goes into its third year of experiencing "denial by delay" with the City of Long Beach Planning Department, it is important to share their experience as a caution for churches and faith-based institutions to be mindful of the intentional oppression of churches in local cities throughout the United States.
Long Beach, California
Long Beach Planning Bureau Fee Schedule
Planning Commission 2019 Estimated Filing & Hearing Schedule
The Quiet Religious-Freedom Fight That Is Remaking America