Opposition Builds Against San Diego Televangelist Project
Morris Cerullo is a celebrity among some evangelical Christians. Although the televangelist lives and has his ministry headquarters in San Diego, he has kept a fairly low profile here. That could dramatically change if the city approves his multimillion-dollar Legacy International Center, an 18-acre mixed-use development in Mission Valley.
The project would demolish the Mission Valley Resort hotel and the adjacent restaurant and liquor store on Hotel Circle South, replacing them with a welcome center, 127 timeshare suites, a restaurant, retail space, a spa and various religious attractions.
Cerullo released a video announcing the project in 2012. He describes it as a training center for missionaries from other countries, as well as a Christian tourist destination.
An accompanying magazine features renderings of replicas of the Roman catacombs and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
Cerullo is aligned with the prosperity gospel — the belief that God wants people to be wealthy, and that donating money to Christian ministries will increase one's wealth. An article published on Gawker this month criticized Cerullo's fundraising techniques and faith healing practices at the televangelist's annual conference in San Diego.
The preacher also supports the widely discredited ex-gay movement.
Concerns about traffic
Cerullo's anti-gay preaching is what initially drew the attention of some local LGBT and neighborhood organizations. Democrats For Equality, the LGBT Community Center and the Hillcrest Town Council all oppose the project.
Democrats For Equality President David Warmoth said Mission Valley is a bad location for Cerullo's development.
“The road is kind of minimal as far as traffic load, (and) the exits are somewhat a problem,” Warmoth said. “This is just a very, very difficult project for us to see going in here.”
Those traffic concerns have been echoed by the UCSD Medical Center, which sent a letter to the city's Development Services Department expressing concern over the project’s environmental impact report. That report found the Legacy International Center would have “significant and unmitigated traffic impacts” — especially on Bachman Place, which connects the project site to the medical center in Hillcrest.
"UC San Diego has to assume access to our UC San Diego Health Hillcrest campus via Bachman Place would be compromised, negatively impacting its constituents and emergency service providers," the letter said.
Warmoth said he finds Cerullo’s anti-gay preaching offensive, even dangerous, but that his opposition to the project is about traffic and the environment, not religion.
“He does absolutely have the right to say whatever he wants, believe whatever he wants,” Warmoth said. “But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about everybody else being impacted.”
Protected under federal law?
The project’s executive director, Jim Penner, declined a recorded interview for this story but sent this statement:
"San Diego enjoys the label as America’s Finest City because it embraces all of the diverse cultures of our human family. The Legacy International Center will be a wonderful addition to such a welcoming, destination City that both local residents and visitors from around the world will enjoy."
Penner added that opposition to the Legacy International Center is about religion, and that the project is protected under a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
Dwight Merriam, a lawyer who specializes in religious land use, said the law is more often used for places of religious celebration, and that little case law exists for religious-commercial projects like the Legacy International Center.
One legal parallel could be faith-based homeless shelters, which Merriam said can claim protection under the law if their faith compels them to provide for the homeless. If the Legacy International Center were to claim the same protection, he said, it would have to prove that the restaurant, timeshares, retail space and other features are all part of their religious exercise.
“Would a large-scale, mixed-use development possibly be under the umbrella, the protection of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act? It’s unlikely, is the short answer,” Merriam said.
The Mission Valley Planning Group is getting a full presentation from Cerullo’s representatives on Feb. 3. Whatever action the planning group takes isn’t binding because the final decision to approve or deny the project lies with the City Council. The office of San Diego City Councilman Scott Sherman, whose district includes Mission Valley, said he had met with Cerullo's representatives at their request over a year ago.
The Legacy International Center hopes to break ground later this year.