Members of Stanford Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic presented in front of the Ventura City Council last Tuesday in defense of Harbor Community Church, a residential homeless ministry located in Ventura, Calif.
The clinic’s involvement marks a year since the program’s founding, during which the clinic — the only of its kind in the country — has worked on 19 cases spanning categories from prisoner rights and employment discrimination to constitutional free exercise and religious land use.
From Stanford to Ventura
Clinic members began work on the Ventura case last fall when they received a call from Harbor pastor Sam Gallucci, who asked for help with applying for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) that would allow Harbor to keep its doors open.
Gallucci opened Harbor’s doors to the homeless when he became pastor in 2008, offering Harbor’s members resources ranging from food to clothing to Bible study.
Ventura residents brought Harbor to the city’s attention when they noticed the size of the congregation had doubled after the city launched efforts in 2011 and 2012 to clear out Ventura’s homeless population, ranging from sweeping homeless encampments along the bottom of Ventura River to prohibiting panhandling in certain areas of the city.
According to an article published in April 2013 in the Ventura County Star, Harbor’s critics felt the church operated as a social services provider and existed in excessive physical proximity to homes and the local elementary school.
“We took them on as a Religious Liberty Clinic client because their zoning issues directly correlated to their religious mission,” said Courtney Quirós J.D. ‘14, a Clinic member. “They’re a church, and they should be able to operate as they see a church should operate.”
The case at Ventura
After the Clinic decided to take on the case, James Sonne, director of the Clinic, sent students to Ventura to interview the client.
“Meeting the client is something you can’t replicate in the classroom,” Sonne noted, emphasizing the importance of understanding the client before proceeding with further casework. “Now it’s a real person with a real problem.”
After the Ventura City Planning Commission voted to deny the CUP application that Clinic students drafted on Harbor’s behalf, students began constructing an appeal to the Ventura City Council.
“Part of what makes the Religious Liberty Clinic such an amazing experience is the variety of areas of the law that it exposes students to,” said Paul Harold J.D. ‘14, a Clinic participant.
“The idea,” Sonne added, “is that you’re out there actually doing [law]. Good lawyers should be able to navigate tricky human situations because, at bottom, that’s what we’re talking about from a legal perspective.”
Quirós and Harold undertook interviews, conducted legal research and prepared to draft an appeal to the Ventura City Council.
The appeal, which was submitted in November 2013, claimed the city’s refusal to grant Harbor a CUP violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, which protects religious groups against zoning restrictions unless the government has a compelling interest in limiting such land use.
On Jan. 26, Sonne and four fellow Clinic students drove to Ventura to present in front of the City Council, bringing together months of work with case supporters and the city of Ventura to an end. It was show time.
The final stretch
The next day, Clinic students presented at a six-hour hearing in front of the Council. Peyton Gulley J.D. ‘15, presented the Clinic’s case. Other speakers included two interfaith groups with an interest in the case and local residents who opposed the CUP.
Although Clinic students and Harbor will have to wait until March to receive a final decision from the Council, Quirós expounded on the importance of continuing work on unresolved cases from quarter to quarter.
“Religious liberty is an issue that is important no matter where we fall on the political spectrum,” she said, “no matter whether we consider ourselves religious or not, no matter where we come from.”
Beyond the Ventura case, Clinic students are currently working with an array of clients ranging from a Muslim prisoner who was denied the right to wear a kufi in prison to Sikh truck drivers who were fired when they refused to cut their hair for drug testing.
Sonne explained how each of the Clinic’s cases, whether dealing with religious land use or employment discrimination, has implications beyond the law itself.
“You can read about this stuff in a book or get a prepackaged set of facts,” Sonne said, “but students’ exposure to different cultures, different beliefs, different legal situations — it’s a deeply human way to learn the nuts and bolts of law.”
Gallucci echoed Sonne’s sentiments in a written statement expressing gratitude for the Clinic’s work and hope regarding the Harbor verdict.
“Clinic students have been with us every step of the way,” Gallucci wrote, adding that their “consistent excellence and character” remains a “source of great strength” to the Harbor community.
Contact Madeleine Han at mhan95 ‘at’ stanford.edu.