San Diego city council to appeal $1.1 million religious school verdict

Costly battle with Catholic high school over its controversial North Park development plans to continue

The San Diego city council has quietly voted to appeal a federal jury's $1.1 million verdict in favor of North Park's Academy of Our Lady of Peace, virtually guaranteeing that the long-running development and religious controversy will remain on the front burner at city hall for the foreseeable future.

According to a closed session report from the meeting of December 4, the council voted 9-0 on a motion by First District councilwoman Sherri Lightner, seconded by the Ninth District's Marti Emerald, to authorize the City Attorney to pursue the city's battle against the verdict, which held that the city violated the Catholic all-girl high school's religious rights when it refused to grant permits for expansion.

Mayor Bob Filner was on hand to witness the closed session vote, the report says.

The Oregon Street school is seeking to build new classrooms, a media center, and a parking garage, but has run into fierce opposition from neighbors and others concerned about overcrowded streets and demolition of historic houses.

As Dorian Hargrove reported here in April of last year, the school's lobbyist Paul Robinson had warned the council that his client would move ahead with its federal court case charging the city with violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act unless a settlement was reached.

The council deadlocked on the matter, with Kevin Faulconer, Carl DeMaio, Lorie Zapf, and Tony Young in favor of continued talks and Todd Gloria, Sheri Lightner, David Alvarez, and Marti Emerald opposed.

In its October verdict, the jury said the city's denial of the development permits was a “substantial burden” on the school's right to religious expression.

"The Academy of Our Lady of Peace is elated with the verdict, and now looks forward to putting this case in the past and continuing to provide the highest quality education to the young women of San Diego," the academy's attorney Daniel Dalton said in a news release posted on Christian Newswire after the decision.

According to the release, the San Diego case was only the third time the religious land use law had been before a jury.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith appears to be up against a formidable and potentially costly legal foe in the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based Dalton, a specialist in religious land use law who has prevailed in dozens of cases on behalf of churches and other religious institutions around the country, according to his website.

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Comments

Huge mistake, but the council members won't be the ones paying the judgement when the appeal loses. You can expect the judgement to DOUBLE, and maybe even triple once Daniel Dalton's legal fees from the appeal are added in. $1.1 million is not chump change, but the city is going to owe $3 million plus if they go to appeal and lose-which they will.

SurfPup, you may be correct from a purely legal standpoint, but there is far more to this story. OLP has coexisted with the residents of North Park for decades. Those residents live on narrow streets, with their modest cottages on narrow lots, and most are a century old, more or less. Until recent years, OLP was a good neighbor. But more recently, it just began to ignore the limits on number of students it could enroll, and the added traffic began to irritate the locals. Why would OLP push up its enrollment? Well, private and parochial schools are now on a roll. Many folks who, a few years ago, would have never dreamed of sending their kids to a tuition-charging school are now willing to cough up $20K or more. So, those schools are expanding. Santa Fe Christian was in a major flap with its Solana Beach neighbors about its expansion plans.

In very recent years the catholic diocese of SD has replaced two high schools that had ramshackle campuses (USDHS and Marian) with new and palatial spreads that put anything in the public arena to shame (Cathedral and Mater Dei in CV). Somebody knows that they can get enough parents to pay them enough to service the debt and provide a nice profit. The Catholics are not the only ones to understand this disaffection with public education. But in the past couple generations, the role of religious has waned in those schools. Today the preponderance of the faculty members in the catholic schools are not nuns, not brothers, and for sure are not priests. They are lay teachers. The blunt fact is that those schools are now a money-making business for the diocese, and that's why they don't particularly care what their neighbors think. The church needs the bucks that those schools bring in.

This lawsuit is not about stifling religious freedom or anything remotely like that, it is using a hired legal "gun" to misuse a law to secure permission for a school to expand its campus in an inappropriate spot, and also extort money from the city. Kudos to the council for standing up to this abuse of a law, and for standing up for the 'hood around the campus.

Little late to this party, but here goes:

Visduh, your comparison of OLP (and by extension their brother school St. Augustine) to Cathedral and Mater Dei is interesting, but incorrect. Totally and completely incorrect. Mater Dei Catholic and Cathedral Catholic are both part of the Diocese. Thus, they have access to the resources of the San Diego Diocese. The Diocese built both campuses (and you are correct, they are both very, very nice!).

But OLP and Saints are Augustinian schools. They are NOT part of the Diocese, and they do not get access to the funding the Diocese can provide. They operate differently, independently. They have to fundraise like crazy just to compete. So no, this is not a case of the Diocese looking to make a ton of money off of OLP's increased enrollment. The Diocese doesn't give them a dime, and doesn't get a dime in return.

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