The tiny office suite, located in a strip mall across the street from Kmart, doesn't look like much.
But for the 30 congregants of Shalom Alliance Fellowship, a young church of Chinese and Filipino immigrants struggling to get off the ground, it was holy ground--a place for them to worship God and fellowship together. That is until last December, when Fountain Valley closed the gathering down because it was in a commercial zone where churches are prohibited.
On Thursday, the nondescript space became the center of a federal lawsuit that pits the city against a national conservative Christian group. At issue is whether the city zoning rules unfairly infringe on the rights of churchgoers to meet.
"We do not quarrel with the notion that cities can zone," said Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney for the American Family Assn. "But what the Supreme Court has said is you cannot make it impossible or practically impossible for a church to locate in a city."
Mariano Yeo's congregation met in the storefront location every Sunday for more than half a year, beginning in April 1998. But seven months ago, a city inspector went through and found Bibles, hymnals, a piano and rows of chairs, the trappings of an illegal church.
A city order to "immediately cease to operate church services or Bible study sessions at this facility," or face prison or a fine of $1,000 per day followed soon after.
Until he received the violation notice from the city, Yeo said he had no idea that his small congregation was operating unlawfully.
"It sounds like I'm living in a Communist state," he said. "This is America."
After failing to persuade the city to keep the church open, Yeo consulted the Mississippi-based American Family Assn., a group best known for spearheading a boycott against the Walt Disney Co. two years ago. The group filed suit Thursday, charging that the city's zoning ordinance constitutes a violation of the churchgoers' civil rights.
Fountain Valley's zoning ordinances, like those of several other Orange County cities, forbid churches in commercial zones because they take up valuable commercial space and do not generate sales tax revenue.
Other cities, like Santa Ana and Westminster, permit worship in commercial zones, while Garden Grove does not. City officials in Fullerton reversed an earlier ban on churches in 1995, deciding it was unconstitutional.
In Fountain Valley, the city's zoning laws used to permit churches if they obtained a conditional use permit. The laws were amended in 1994, dropping churches from a short list of those who could apply for the permits.
Yeo's attorneys point out that the zoning allows other non-tax generating uses for commercial spaces, like meeting lodges and fraternities and sororities--even as churches are excluded.
The city allows churches in residential areas, but those areas are almost completely built out, Fahling said. The result, he argues, is essentially a ban on new churches in the city, he said.
City Atty. Alan Burns said Thursday that Yeo and his attorneys had "raised some interesting issues" and that it seems inconsistent to allow some nonprofit groups to operate in commercial zones but not churches.
But Burns defended the general practice of excluding churches in zoning laws.
"I don't think there's a legal problem in prohibiting churches in commercial zones as long as you group uses together in a proper manner," he said. "There has to be some rational basis for what you're doing."
The Fountain Valley case is just the latest church and state clash over zoning in the Southland. In March, a church filed suit against Rolling Hills Estates after the city denied the group permission to operate in a vacant theater. Two years ago, five immigrant Korean churches in Garden Grove were forced to move because they violated similar zoning measures.
Church congregations across the country have increasingly encountered problems when trying to find a place to call home, bumping into escalating land prices and restrictive zoning.
Since they were forced out, Yeo's congregation has moved two more times. They are now meeting in a spacious Santa Ana sanctuary rented at a bargain price from another church.
Yeo maintains the storefront as an office for the church in hopes his congregation might be allowed to return.
The conflict with the city has drained him, he said. Still, he keeps the faith. He draws a biblical parallel for his case: "It's like David and Goliath."