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H&L’s pro bono work contributes to $2.3m settlement in religious freedom case.

June 24, 2016

Horvitz & Levy LLP, in partnership with the Religious Liberty Clinicat Stanford Law School, has helped the Harbor Missionary Church achieve a substantial settlement in a long-running battle with the City of Ventura over Harbor’s religious freedom right to operate a homeless outreach program within the City.

As reported in a lead front-page article in the Ventura County Star, the City will pay $2.3 million to acquire Harbor’s church building and property, an amount substantially in excess of its stipulated $1.6 million market value. In exchange, Harbor will move to a location outside the City and cease its homeless outreach operation within City limits. Under the settlement, Harbor can continue holding worship services in its building for at least a year under a lease-back agreement. 

The settlement is a culmination of a long-running battle by Harbor to keep open its homeless ministry, Operation Embrace. In 2008, Harbor commenced Operation Embrace to provide religious teachings, worship music, prayer, clothing, food, showers, counseling, and other support at its church for homeless men and women living in the City, as part of its religious duty. In 2013, the City told Harbor that it needed to obtain a conditional use permit to continue its homeless ministry, and then denied Harbor’s application for the permit. The Church filed suit based on the City’s infringement of its religious practices and sought a preliminary injunction to continue Operation Embrace. 

After the district court denied the Church’s request, Horvitz & Levy partner John Taylor and former associate Lisa Freeman stepped in to challenge that denial in a Ninth Circuit appeal. In its decision, the Ninth Circuit held that the district court erred in its analysis denying a preliminary injunction, and remanded the case for further findings on why a conditional use permit that had been recommended by City staff but rejected by the Ventura City Council “would not sufficiently protect the neighborhood from any negative effects shown to be the result of the Church’s ministry to the homeless.” The City agreed to settle the case rather than continue litigating that question.

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