A federal judge won’t let Santa Ana officials dismiss a lawsuit against them by Micah’s Way, a Christian homeless nonprofit that’s suing City Hall for burdening its religious exercise when the city tried to bar the group’s activities.

It comes after the U.S. Dept. of Justice waded into the case in May, filing a motion in support of the all-volunteer Christian ministry.

The issue comes down to whether the City of Santa Ana is infringing upon Micah’s Way’s right to religious exercise under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

“Micah’s Way has pled sufficient facts to plausibly allege that its food distribution activities are religious exercise,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter in a June 8 ruling. 

It adds:

“Micah’s Way has pled facts sufficient to plausibly allege the City has put ‘substantial pressure’ on it to ‘modify [its] behavior and to violate [its] beliefs.’”

Long considered Orange County’s “dumping ground” for wealthier cities’ homeless residents, Santa Ana leaders have been cracking down on the number of street-level homeless aid groups in town whose poor clientele, they argue, presents a nuisance and safety concern for neighboring residents.

“We are disappointed with the Court’s decision not to dismiss the case,” said city spokesperson Paul Eakins in a Saturday email. “However, we are confident that once Judge Carter hears the true facts of the case, he will find that the City did not violate RLUIPA.”

It draws back to what city officials describe as a “responsibility to protect both its local land use rights as well as the security of our neighborhoods.”

“All of our residents throughout Santa Ana deserve to enjoy the safety and comfort of their homes without being subjected to the negative impacts of unpermitted activities such as those of Micah’s Way.

In his Thursday ruling, however, Judge Carter called the city’s actions “clear selective enforcement of the City’s zoning law targeting only conduct motivated by religious belief.”

“Not only was Micah’s Way misled to believe that they would get a [Certificate of Occupancy permit] upon passing a building inspection and assured by the Code Enforcement Department Chief that they were doing a ‘good job,’ but the City waited five years to cite Micah’s Way for operating without a permit they never had in the first place,” Carter wrote.

He added: 

“Further, the citation was issued pursuant to an order from the top of the City government to ‘devise whatever means they could come up with’ to get rid of Micah’s Way.”

“The sudden, coordinated effort to target Micah’s Way makes it plausible that the City’s decision was arbitrary,” Carter wrote, adding that the nonprofit likely could not afford to move to a new location, and even if they could – “it is plausible to conclude that Micah’s Way would likely be precluded from using other sites in the city.”

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