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In this case Horvitz & Levy LLP partnered with the Religious Liberty Clinic at Stanford Law School to represent the Harbor Missionary Church in its successful appeal in a long-running battle to keep open its ministry to the homeless.

In 2008, the Church 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 of Ventura, as part of its religious duty to serve “the least of these” (Matthew 25:34-46) among us. In 2013, after nearby residents expressed concerns about Operation Embrace, the City told the Church that it needed to obtain a conditional use permit to continue its homeless ministry. The Church applied for the permit, which the City promptly denied. The Church then filed suit, claiming that the City’s denial infringed on its religious practices and, pending the lawsuit, sought a preliminary injunction to keep open its homeless ministry. The district court denied the Church’s request, ruling that a preliminary injunction was not appropriate because the Church faced no substantial burden in having to move its “homeless services” to another location, and, even if it did, the complete denial of the permit was the least restrictive way to mitigate the City’s safety concerns.

In its decision, the Ninth Circuit held that the district court erred in determining that the Church’s religious exercise was not substantially burdened by denial of a conditional use permit, and that the district court had erred “by questioning the validity of the Church’s religious beliefs and by determining that its homeless ministry could be divided piecemeal when the Church insisted on the importance of keeping its homeless ministry as a whole at the same location.” The Ninth Circuit further found that “[t]he substantial cost associated with relocating the site of the Church demonstrates that the denial of the conditional use permit substantially burdens the Church’s religious exercise.” While the City demonstrated it “had a compelling interest in promoting public safety and in preventing crime,” the district court “failed to apply the proper analysis when it determined that the City had used the least restrictive means to achieve this goal.” Noting that the City’s staff had recommended that the use permit be approved, subject to certain conditions to mitigate some of the outreach program’s impacts on the local community, the Ninth Circuit found that the district court abused its discretion when it “failed to give appropriate consideration to the viability of such a conditional use permit” and instead “in a single sentence . . . concluded summarily that Operation Embrace was ‘so incompatible’ with the neighborhood and so detrimental to public safety that outright denial was the City’s only option.”

The Ninth Circuit therefore remanded the case for further findings about what conditions the Church would comply with if the City granted a conditional use permit and to “detail why the conditional use permit recommended by the City’s staff would or would not sufficiently protect the neighborhood from any negative effects shown to be the result of the Church’s ministry to the homeless.”