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Exploiting the Religious Title: Costa Mesa's Trinity Broadcasting Network Fights To Annoy

by Andy Justice Friday, Feb. 28, 2003 at 12:37 AM

Costa Mesa's Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) attempts to overstep its bounds in using the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 to conduct church services and taping outdoors -- nearby residents outraged.

On Monday, the Costa Mesa Planning Commission postponed its decision to allow the Trinity Broadcasting Network to tape its religious program outdoors, awaiting further details about how the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) pertains to the case (brought up by TBN’s attorney, John Casoria). According to the act (Public Law 106-274) passed in the 106th Congress and signed by President Clinton on September 22, 2000, the government cannot “impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution,” unless it is found that the “imposition of the burden . . . is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest” (sec. 2a.).

From TBN’s perspective, forbidding it from taping its religious program outdoors would be imposing an unnecessary burden on its freedom to conduct a religious exercise. TBN may even go as far as arguing that this imposition prevents it from gathering for a religious assembly, which would be in violation of section 2b.(3b) under the heading of discrimination and exclusion, “unreasonably [limiting] religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.”

However, it should be clear to most people who have actually read the RLUIPA that its purpose, within the scope of the land use ordinance, is to protect the right of religious freedom and assembly. Regarding the decision of whether to allow TBN to hold minor church services and tape its program outdoors, this act has no bearing or relevance to the case at hand. It has not been established that the City of Costa Mesa prevented TBN from conducting normal religious practices, or from assembling to conduct such practices. The request to conduct minor church services and taping outdoors, although requested by an organization labeled as religious and charitable, is merely a superfluous demand: taping outdoors is not in itself a religious exercise, and a church service and TV taping is not limited to being conducted outdoors. Not allowing TBN to hold such church services and taping outdoors would not hinder its ability to function religiously, or to assemble for religious purposes. And it is exactly for this reason that disallowing the outdoor service and taping cannot be construed as a “substantial burden” since TBN’s planned religious or non-religious practices could easily be conducted indoors.

In the event that TBN proves that its outdoor taping constitutes a religious practice that cannot be performed adequately indoors, in which a “substantial burden” has been imposed on it by the city, than the city may apply section 2a. (1a. and 1b.) of the RLUIPA in arguing that it is in the city’s interest to protect the significant number of homeowners within the vicinity who have already complained of excessive noise inside of TBN’s building. In addition, forbidding TBN from outdoor services and taping in the interests of the city is “least restrictive” in that it continues to allow church services and taping indoors (with respect to TBN’s abidance of the city code on noise level) while not infringing on other neighbor’s rights to live without major disturbances. Therefore, the city’s compelling interest for protection of its citizens, in the least way restrictive of TBN’s religious activities, supercedes TBN’s right against a substantial burden from government imposition because all necessary conditions for invalidation of the substantial burden have been met.

It should be noted that TBN has yet to prove that its religious proceedings depend solely on practicing outdoors, rather than within an enclosed building with proper walls and roofing to minimize noise level. Moreover, any organization that relies on its outdoor facilities, refusing to conduct its religious activities indoors despite complaints of excessive noise, have fallen outside the scope of being considered a legitimate church or charitable organization. For how can a religious title exempt an individual, group of individuals, or organization from injuring the public welfare and the government’s interest? Should a late night bar or dance club change its title from a business to a religious organization in order to be immune from local, state, and federal laws? No, the RLUIPA only guarantees religious freedom and assembly, and in no way states or suggests that the religious institution may overstep government interests to further its own agenda, be it religious or non-religious.

Thus, in deciding whether TBN should be permitted to tape its religious (or non-religious) activity outdoors, the Planning Commission should not consider the RLUIPA, for it has no bearing or relevance in this particular case. In basing its decision, the Planning Commission must treat TBN’s request like any other business or organization that requests to tape outdoors: it must consider the opinions of nearby residents, the potential noise factor, excessive lighting, etc. And if past complaints of excessive noise inside of TBN is any indication of what lies ahead, then TBN’s use of its outdoor facilities for minor church services and TV taping may be a significant problem for the community near Metro Pointe.

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