A Christian school in California may be evicted from the building it leases from the local public school, which cites safety concerns but is accused by some of religious discrimination.
On the first day of classes at Ventura County Christian School (VCCS), officials from Ventura Unified School District told the school that it needed to leave the premises within three days, citing a building inspection report and claiming the school did not have a “legal right to continue to possess or occupy the property,” according to a Ventura County Star report.
District Board President Sabrena Rodriguez claims the school district’s “first and only concern is the safety of the community’s children.” But attorney Ron Bamieh, representing the Christian school, calls the safety concerns a “pretext” for religious discrimination.
A release from Bamieh’s office argues the school district’s attempt to close the school based on the claim that the lease was terminated due to structural issues is “pretextual for their discrimination against VCCS as a Christian school that has the right to hire Christian-only teachers and staff pursuant to Education Code § 221 and the 1st Amendment exercise of their religion.”
“[The district] believes either that this school does not have a right to exist and worship as they see fit, or because they have a huge disenrollment problem and they want to get two hundred extra heads in their school,” Bamieh said in an Aug. 29 press conference.
Allegations of discrimination revolve around a clause in the new lease that requires the school to refrain from discrimination in hiring decisions, meaning that the school would not be able to require faculty to share the religious views of the school. The school’s request that the clause be removed from the new lease was denied, and the district maintains that the prior lease included the same clause.
VCCS has used the building, the former location of the Washington School, since 2001. The previous school had closed down “amid concerns that the structure was sinking into the ground,” according to the Star. However, an inspection prior to the Christian school’s tenancy found the ground to be sufficiently stable.
After the Christian school spent millions of dollars in repairs and upgrades, a 2003 inspection found the school building to be structurally sound. The VCCS lease ran 20 years, ending in 2021, and entailed a monthly $2,000 rent.
The renewed lease doubled the rent to $4,000 and gave the district the right to terminate the lease should it find information that the school is “not safe for use for any purpose to include, but not limited to, a public or private school.”
Later in 2021, after another building inspection found the building to be in good condition, the district reportedly tried to increase the rent to $27,000 a month, which the Christian school negotiated down to $12,000.
But then another inspection this summer found the building “would not provide safety in the event of a natural disaster,” according to Rodriguez. The report, while recommending further inspection and additional structural supports, also stated there was nothing that would warrant vacating the building.
Even so, the district decided to terminate the lease.
In September, after commissioning its own inspection, VCCS sent a request to the school district for an additional independent inspection, which the district reportedly did not answer. Rodriguez declined to comment on that request when asked by local media.
Additionally, an attorney for the district has argued that the Christian school’s tenancy had already been terminated and that the lease was not renewed.
Early this month, VCCS was notified the district had filed documents with a court for eviction. However, the Christian school continued to meet for the first several weeks of the fall term.
In a statement at the beginning of the term, Bamieh seemed confident in VCCS’s right to the building.
“If you think you have a valid legal case, bring it. We’re happy to have it, and we can resolve it once and for all,” Bamieh said.