Dave Rice 12:38 p.m., May 21
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.