Give Me That Old-Time Religym

Illustration by Aaron KratenIf all goes according to plan, there will be a state-of-the-art community center in Aliso Viejo in about two years. All the city has to do is give away land to the Gabrielson Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization run by two pastors, and allow them to hold Sunday services there for perpetuity.

Separation of church and state? Who cares?! Not Aliso Viejo city officials, apparently not any residents, and definitely not the Gabrielson Family Foundation.

“The Gabrielson Family Foundation is a secular foundation—it's not a religious church. Is that clear?” responded spokesman Bill Furlow when asked about his foundation's ties to the pastors. “[The proposed community center] is just the vision of Steve and Lynn to build a recreation center that brings together a number of really worthwhile nonprofit organizations into one common place.”

The Steve and Lynn in question are Steven and Lynn Gabrielson, the founders of the Gabrielson Family Foundation (GFF). They're both pastors at the Lake Forest-based Pacific Center for Positive Living, a church affiliated with the Church of Religious Science—not to be confused with the Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Scientist) or Scientology (Battlefield Earth). In December, the husband-and-wife team founded the GFF with the specific purpose of completely funding the building of a municipal community center somewhere in South County. One catch: the pastors and their association maintain control over all activities held in the proposed facilities and can conduct Sunday services in the gymnasium upon the project's completion.

The Gabrielsons first approached Mission Viejo with such a proposal in January. The City Council rejected the plan, however, over concerns that the Gabrielsons' relationship with the Pacific Center would run aground of regulations prohibiting government sponsorship of a religious entity.

“I can't imagine any other church that would have the moxie to try what they want to do,” said a source with close ties to Mission Viejo council members and who requested anonymity. “I don't doubt that [the community center] is a side benefit for a city, but we have to take into account that the purpose of any church is to build its following, even if it's nondenominational. It gets fuzzy constitutionally. Where do you draw the line?”

Aliso Viejo officials have no such concerns. The City Council there on May 19 unanimously approved the Gabrielsons' proposal to construct a $15 million community center at Aliso Viejo Ranch, an undeveloped section of the city that currently hosts a historic barn and bunkhouse. The GFF still must submit an environmental-impact report and negotiate a long-term lease with the city, but the basic agreement is set: in exchange for public property, the GFF will build, maintain and operate a community center complete with gymnasium, meeting rooms and classrooms at no cost to the city.

“[Aliso Viejo] will now have a community asset that it doesn't have now,” says City Manager Dave Norman. “If built as proposed, it will have a full-sized gymnasium and a fine-arts academy. There are many public benefits to the project.”

He has no concerns about the city violating the separation of church and state, noting that Aliso Viejo City Attorney Scott Smith okayed the deal. But a staff report prepared by Norman mentioned the city's initial reservations with the project, noting, “Council needed to consider constitutional principals related to the separation of church and state.”

Ultimately, the city was so desperate for a community center—and so short of cash thanks to the statewide budget crunch—the council concluded all would be legal as long as “the Ranch property was made available to other interested parties to provide the same level of amenity and public benefit the community and city have sought for so long.”

A call to Steve Gabrielson for comment was returned by Furlow, a former Los Angeles Timeseditor who now runs a public-relations firm that specializes in crisis control. Furlow insisted the Pacific Center will just “be a tenant of the facility” and “pay rent for the office space and use of the recreation center” like other proposed center occupants such as the Boys and Girls Club, the Braille Institute and the Red Cross. He dismissed the notion that the community center would proselytize or influence any decisions on which groups will use the facilities.

However, the GFF proposal states that the organization will “assist in scheduling use of the facility” and also “have the first priority for using the facility” along with other permanent tenants.

During the approval process, no one “pushed the issue” of whether GFF stewardship of Aliso Viejo's center would violate the separation of church and state, Furlow claimed. “At the hearing at the City Council, about 30 people spoke regarding the proposal. No one raised the issue. I have attended two meetings of the local homeowner association. No one has raised this issue,” he said.

“There won't be any permanent signs advertising the church—just something like saying that the offices are on the second floor,” he continued. “This thing is going to be a recreation center. As you know, almost every school gym hosts a church on Sunday. This is the same sort of arrangement.”

But the actual proposal indicates otherwise. In a section titled “Benefits to the Aliso Viejo community,” the Pacific Center for Positive Living is touted for being able to “enrich the lives of area residents and families.” To this point, Furlow responded, “Every one of the nonprofits had a piece in how it would contribute to life in South Orange County. . . . For people who desire spiritual development, [the Pacific Center] is one avenue they can pursue. This is a spiritual option for people who are drawn to that type of church.”

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