Baha'i News -- As a Word, 'Church' Isn't Up to City Code May 4, 2002

VENTURA COUNTY

As a Word, 'Church' Isn't Up to City Code

By MARGARET TALEV, TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Thousand Oaks City Council is preparing to strike the word "church" from its lexicon.

Broader terms--"religious facilities" and "religious organizations"--would replace the word throughout the city's municipal code under the measure council members are expected to approve formally this month.

Practically speaking the change has no effect. Already, any ordinance that pertains to Christian houses of worship--from tax exemptions to zoning to food preparation standards--applies equally to other places of worship. Symbolically, though, backers say it could mean a great deal to the thousands of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and others settling in the affluent suburb in eastern Ventura County.

"Church" implies Christianity, and government code shouldn't reflect a religious bias, they said.

They hope the change will serve as an example to other California cities. Although some cities already use broader terms, many of them have retained the word "church." San Francisco code refers to "a church or other religious institution," and San Jose code refers to a "a church or religious assembly."

Los Angeles code uses "church" as a generic term, said a spokesman for the city attorney.

"The rest of the world is divided on religious and ethnic and color lines," said Nick Quidwai, a Pakistani American Muslim who lives in Thousand Oaks and proposed the change to city planning commissioners last year.

"Look at what's happening in India and Bethlehem and the Philippines and Afghanistan," Quidwai said. "Here, we pride ourselves on our diversity. Our community has grown. This is another thing that will make us united."

Thousand Oaks was mostly white and Christian when it was incorporated in 1964. Of the 36,768 people who lived in the city in 1970, census figures show 98% were white. There were 121 blacks, 283 Asians and no Latinos.

Three decades later, whites make up slightly more than three-fourths of the city's 117,000 residents; more than 15,000 are Latino, 7,000 are Asian and 1,200 are black.

While no religious census of the city exists, churches still greatly outnumber other houses of worship. But a handful of synagogues, mosques and temples share the stage.

Their growing membership has been fueled by urban flight from Los Angeles, second-generation families and the expansion of local science and technology firms, including biotech giant Amgen, which have attracted foreign-born scientists and engineers.

"I happen to be Roman Catholic, so I go to a church," said Councilman Andy Fox. "But people of other religions don't go to a church, and it seems appropriate that, in government, our language be inclusive."

More than 1,500 Jewish families attend the city's two synagogues and hundreds drive to a synagogue in neighboring Agoura Hills.

The Islamic Center of Conejo Valley, whose membership includes 300 families, is expanding its Thousand Oaks facility. Jehovah's Witnesses have a Kingdom Hall in town; and the city's 100-member Bahai spiritual assembly has bought land for a center.

Quidwai, 50, a salesman, has lived in the community since 1979. He didn't notice the word "church" in the city code until five years ago, when he helped the Islamic Center seek zoning changes to land it had purchased for its mosque and school. "I noticed the permits made several references to churches, which didn't make any sense because we weren't a church," he said. Years passed before Quidwai decided to make it an issue.

He presented his case after a couple of religious facilities brought requests before the city Planning Commission. Planning commissioners were receptive and forwarded a recommendation to the City Council.

Temple Etz Chaim administrator Joan Sandoval said the language in the city code books carries over into conversations. "When I'm dealing with the people in the city, they often use the word 'church' as a generic term for a religious institution, but it's not a generic term," she said.

"I think it's very refreshing and supportive that they're making this change."


©Copyright 2002, Los Angeles Times

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