By Jaguar Bennett | firstname.lastname@example.org
For 22 weeks, Tower District residents and supporters have demonstrated against the sale of the Tower Theatre to Adventure Church. No one is doing this for fun. The very survival of the Tower District is at stake. The sale of the Tower District’s namesake to a conservative, homophobic church threatens to destroy everything that makes the Tower District a queer-affirming, artistic, bohemian, livable neighborhood.
What’s the big deal about a church in the Tower District?
By itself, a church operating in the Tower District is not a problem. There are 28 churches within a two-mile radius of the Tower Theatre, including Adventure Church’s primary location at Palm south of Olive. But a church permanently located in the Tower Theatre will create huge problems for the economy and culture of the Tower District.
The existing zoning law is crystal clear: the Tower Theatre is in an area zoned Commercial Main Street, in which public and religious assembly are not permitted in facilities larger than 2,000 square feet. This zoning does not discriminate against religion; it equally prohibits operating the theater as a private club, community center, or conference center.
The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control may deny liquor licenses to premises within 600 feet of a church. This isn’t automatic; existing bars would not be immediately affected. But in the long term, this would gradually stop new bars and restaurants from opening in the Tower District. Whenever a new business applies for a liquor license, or whenever a business changes ownership, the liquor license could be challenged.
Adventure Church has claimed that they will not oppose liquor licenses in the Tower District, but even if you believe that the church has no way of guaranteeing that members of the public won’t challenge a liquor license or that ABC won’t deny a license.
Adventure Church has every right to whatever doctrine it believes, but its doctrine is not compatible with Tower District values. Adventure is part of the Foursquare Church, a non-queer-a firming denomination that believes that homosexuality is a sin, will not admit queer people into church leadership, and will not hold same-sex wedding ceremonies.
Adventure Church has claimed that they do not want to change the Tower District. This is impossible to believe, given the church’s previous rhetoric about providing a “redemptive lift” to the neighborhood. Members of Adventure Church have been seen harassing bar patrons and gay youths on the street. It’s not difficult to see exactly what Adventure’s “redemptive lift” implies.
Current status of the sale.
Fortunately, the sale of the Tower Theatre has been blocked since Sequoia Brewing Company filed its lawsuit in February. Sequoia, one of the tenants of Laurence Abbate, who owns the entire block the Tower Theatre occupies, alleges in their lawsuit that the sale violates their first right of refusal to buy the property, as guaranteed in their rental agreement.
After four months of litigation, Sequoia’s lawsuit has yet to go to trial. A hearing in Fresno and an appeal to a higher state court focused on whether the sale to Adventure Church should be blocked until Sequoia’s case is tried. The sale is still blocked as of this writing, but that could be reversed by a hearing later in June. In April, the attorney for Tower Theatre Properties argued in a filing that the escrow period for the sale had expired, and the sale was off. However, in the same week, Abbate told the media that he would sell the theater to Adventure Church as soon as possible.
Will zoning ever be enforced?
Adventure Church began holding Sunday services at the Tower Theatre last summer and continued until Jan. 5, when the Fresno city attorney issued a cease-and-desist letter to Abbate and Adventure Church, notifying them that religious assembly on the property was a zoning violation.
In May, Adventure Church resumed services at the Tower Theatre, and this time the City backed off its commitment to enforce its laws. After three weeks of services and numerous complaints to city code enforcement, the City has refused to cite Abbate or Tower Theatre for zoning violations.
The City is not enforcing zoning because city officials want to avoid a lawsuit they fear they can’t win. Given the deference that federal courts have shown to conservative evangelical Christian churches, this isn’t an unreasonable fear. City officials reason that if they never enforce zoning, the church can’t sue the City. But this is creating a dangerous precedent that the mere threat of a lawsuit by a religious group can overturn a law.
The City’s surrender on zoning reveals some painful truths about Fresno’s subservience to the Christian Right. No city in coastal California would allow a conservative evangelical church to take over a historic landmark in the heart of its gay neighborhood. No other religious organization, not a mosque, not a synagogue, not even a progressive Christian church, would be allowed to openly violate the law and get away with it. City officials believe they’re protecting the City from a lawsuit. Still, the effect of their action is to grant extra privileges to a homophobic church while denying legal protections to gay residents and gay-owned businesses.
What can you do?
The only thing ordinary citizens can do to transplant a spine into our city leadership is the relentless pressure of public opinion. The mayor and the City Council must see that they will pay a political price for abandoning the Tower District. Please join our weekly demonstrations. Write letters to the mayor and every member of the city council. Help us keep the pressure up. You can find more information on the Facebook page of the Save the Tower Theatre Demonstration Committee.