Liberty Saves the Day

Alan J. Reinach September/October 2008

Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, was up against the proverbial wall. A powerful coalition was pressing for an amendment to the Napa County General Plan in order to prevent the college from pursuing plans for an "ecovillage." Proposed development at the college would upgrade commercial facilities and provide added residential housing, including much-needed low-income housing, and would add 17 acres to the development foot-print of the community. It would utilize state-of-the-art building and conservation techniques to minimize its environmental impact. Yet the jury decided that this project should not be evaluated on its own merits, and must be blocked at all costs.

The cost to Pacific Union College was to be substantial. Amending the General Plan would not only block the particular project, but threaten to severely restrict its property and development rights.

At the eleventh hour, it appeared that the college was going to lose the fight. The tide was turning against it among the Napa County Board of Supervisors. It was then that Liberty magazine came to the rescue!

College president Richard Osborn was flying home from a meeting. Browsing through a recent issue of Liberty, he happened to read a story about a land use case involving the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). RLUIPA was enacted by Congress in 2000 following the growing problem faced by religious institutions in the local land use approval process. President Osborn suggested to college lawyers that they investigate RLUIPA issues. When they professed to lacking expertise in this area, he suggested that they contact the Seventh-day Adventist Church's religious liberty representatives. He knew they had experience in such issues.

I had the privilege to consult on the case and to help craft an RLUIPA argument and letter to the Napa County attorney, with very able assistance from Nicholas Miller, Esq., director of the Andrews University International Religious Liberty Institute. It was widely acknowledged that this legal analysis saved the day for Pacific Union College. It gave county officials pause. During that pause, they realized that the college was entitled to have its development plans considered on their own merits; that the future of the "urban bubble" in Angwin should be evaluated with the other urban bubbles in the county; and according to principles and practices that apply consistently throughout the county.

Some apparently do not understand the federal RLUIPA statute, or how the amendment of a Napa general plan can raise religious freedom issues. They see the issue in secular, not religious terms. RLUIPA requires that religious institutions be given equal treatment with other institutions. The proposed amendments to the general plan were designed to restrict the development rights of only Pacific Union College, and in that way, did not constitute equal treatment. There is no question but that county officials both understood and gave careful consideration to these legal principles. Moreover, despite press coverage claiming that the college had threatened to sue the county, county officials did not express fear that the college was threatening to sue. Indeed, we had the opportunity to remind county officials that we are here to serve the community, not to fight with it.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the college will now prevail in its development plans, or that the project will not have to be substantially modified or reduced before it can be approved. There is a key environmental review process that will have enormous influence on the final outcome. All of the concerns expressed by those who oppose the project will be heard at the proper time and place, as the specific project is evaluated. This is how the land use process is supposed to work.

Thanks to Liberty magazine, Napa County has decided in favor of fundamental fairness toward Pacific Union College, a good neighbor and member of the county community for more than 100 years.

Should your church or religious institution be facing a difficult development process, it would be well to consult with religious freedom attorneys at an early stage in the proceedings to ensure that the relevant legal principles are followed.

Attorney Alan J.Reinach writes from Thousand oaks, California. He represents the Seventh-day Adventist Church for religious liberty issues in a five-state area surrounding California.

Article Author: Alan J. Reinach

Alan J. Reinach is Executive Director of the Church State Council, the religious liberty educational and advocacy arm of the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, representing five western states: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah. His legal practice emphasizes First Amendment religious freedom cases, and religious accommodation cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and related state civil rights laws. Reinach is also a Seventh-day Adventist minister who speaks regularly on religious freedom topics, and is the host of a nationally syndicated weekly radio broadcast, “Freedom’s Ring.” He is the principal author and editor of Politics and Prophecy: The Battle for Religious Liberty and the Authentic Gospel, and a frequent contributor to Libertymagazine.