Westchester Lutheran school fights restrictions

Los Angeles, USA - A Lutheran school in Westchester has filed a lawsuit alleging that city planners have illegally imposed restrictions that bar it from providing religious education on weekdays.

The lawsuit, filed late last week in federal court by the Westchester Lutheran Church and School, states that officials with the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission approved requirements on plans to expand and renovate the church campus on Sepulveda Boulevard that violate federal law and constitutional protections.

One provision requires the school to limit religious instruction to the weekends, the lawsuits states.

"The city has no business telling a private Christian school that it has to be secular -- this appears to be a pattern for the city," said Robert Tyler, a Temecula-based lawyer with Advocates for Faith and Freedom.

This is the second lawsuit of its kind that Tyler's organization has filed against the city of Los Angeles. A complaint was filed in December on behalf of a church in Granada Hills.

"The thrust of the lawsuit is to prevent the arbitrary mishandling of religious liberty and the right to use property by a Christian church and school," Tyler said.

The dispute stems from plans by the church, which has been based in Westchester for more than 50 years, to demolish some buildings and add more space to the campus.

The initial permit submitted in 2002 was rejected by an associate city zoning administrator, but a revised version was proposed in 2004. The new plan called for the demolition of roughly 14,500 square feet of buildings and the addition of 37,000 square feet, the lawsuit states. Church officials contend that the addition would not lead to an increase in occupancy at the church or enrollment at the school.

Anik Charron, an associate city zoning administrator, approved the plan but only after placing a series of "objectionable conditions" on it, the lawsuit states.

At the heart of the lawsuit is "Condition 7," which states: "Permitted uses shall consist of secular education programs Monday through Friday and religious education programs on Saturday and Sundays."

Corinne Farley, a Westchester resident who has two children enrolled at the school and is a lawyer in the lawsuit, said when she saw the secular-education condition she was shocked. She said she has never heard any justification for the restriction.

"I just thought that it was the creepiest thing in the world," she said. "Who would even think of such a thing? ... After reading the balance of the (conditions), I just felt like it was a mean-spirited stab. I think it was intentional."

Over the church's complaints, the Planning Commission sustained Charron's decision in October.

The suit alleges the restrictions violate First Amendment freedom of religion provisions, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which expanded building rights for churches.

The lawsuit also objects to other conditions, including limiting enrollment and restrictions on the school's hours of operation.

One condition requires the church and school to set up a car-pool program. If the plan doesn't meet goals of an average of 2.5 children, plus a driver per car, the city could impose a reduction in the number of students enrolled at the school, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also alleges that the conditions require the school to suspend students for a parent's violation of parking restrictions.

Charron said Thursday she is no longer the administrator on the Westchester Lutheran plan and had no additional comment. The new zoning administrator also declined to comment.

Jonathan Diamond, a spokesman for City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, said his office has not been served with the complaint and he had no comment.

The church's school enrolls 530 students from preschool through eighth grade.

"The school exists to be a ministry not only to students but also to their families," the lawsuit states. "While academic education is of obvious importance, providing a Christian-based environment for spiritual development is of equal importance."

Tyler said the church has tried to work with the city to have the objections removed, but has had no success.

The lawsuit seeks an order from a judge to remove the restrictions, and asks that the judge award compensatory damages to the church.