A California church suing city government for violating a new federal religious-rights law was given a boost this week when the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in to defend the law’s constitutionality.

In its defense against a suit brought by Elsinore Christian Center, the City of Lake Elsinore claims the religious-rights law cited by the church violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. But the DOJ believes the law merely removes government-instituted obstacles to the free exercise of religion.

As the nation’s attorney, it is Attorney General John Ashcroft’s job to defend federal laws. Accordingly, a Justice Department attorney from Washington, D.C., made the trip to California for a recent hearing in the case, which began in May. At that time, attorneys for the Pacific Justice Institute filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Elsinore Christian Center, which was denied use by the city of the property it recently purchased. The lawsuit is based on a year-old federal law that holds local governments to the highest legal standard when evaluating land-use permits for religious organizations.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, signed by President Bill Clinton in September, requires cities to demonstrate a compelling state interest for any substantial burden they place upon any church’s usage of its property. It also prohibits selective discrimination against churches regarding zoning policies.

The law is intended to replace the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, or RFRA, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997 as unconstitutional because it attempted to tell the federal courts how they must interpret and apply the First Amendment when scrutinizing state and local laws. RFRA violated the separation of powers set forth in the Constitution. Critics of RLUIPA say the new law may be struck down for the same reason.

The City of Lake Elsinore believes RLUIPA is unconstitutional because it entangles government with religion. But the DOJ disagrees. In its brief to Judge Stephen V. Wilson of the Central District Court of California, DOJ attorneys refer to various Supreme Court cases in which justices clarify the relationship between government and religion.

For example, in Lynch v. Donnelly, the Supreme Court states that the Constitution does not “require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions and forbids hostility toward any.”

Additionally, “The Court has long recognized that the government may (and sometimes must) accommodate religious practices and that it may do so without violating the Establishment Clause,” the justices ruled in a 1987 case.

Attorneys for the DOJ also claim RLUIPA passes the “Lemon test,” which was created by the Supreme Court in 1971 to evaluate Establishment Clause challenges. The three-pronged test, outlined in Lemon v. Kurtzman, requires any accommodation law to have “a secular legislative purpose” and a “principal or primary effect” that “neither advances nor inhibits religion.” Also, the law must not “foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.”

Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, said he is pleased with the DOJ’s involvement with the case.

“We are glad to have the U.S. Department of Justice weigh in on our side in this case,” he said. “Their involvement not only gives greater weight to our constitutional arguments, but also recognizes the critical importance of this litigation on the future rights of churches to grow and expand according to their spiritual calling and overcome all-too-common hostile local governments.”

Pacific Justice will continue as Elsinore Christian Center’s legal representative through affiliate attorney Bob Tyler. However, Dacus believes the attorney general’s involvement will give the case more focus in addition to lending greater legal arguments in support of RLUIPA’s constitutionality.

At a July hearing, Wilson denied the church’s request for an injunction, which would have allowed the church to occupy its new property. The judge said the church had not made a showing of irreparable harm. He also noted that “there are serious questions going to the merits of the church’s RLUIPA claim, and the parties must research and address the meaning of ‘substantial burden.'”

Calls to the city’s attorney, Barbara Leibold, were not returned.

Related stories:

Church sues city over land-use permit

Churches sue for zoning rights

Christian college to sue over zoning

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