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City to increase rent on Olvera St. church

May 4, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Some of Olvera Street's faithful walked from the plaza to City Hall Wednesday in protest. They say the city's plan to raise their rent and impose a new fee system will force them out of their historic church.

The Plaza Methodist Church at Olvera Street has been on L.A.'s oldest street for decades. Churchgoers say a few months ago they were thrown out. They say they were locked out by the city while they were negotiating a new lease. In addition, they say they were told they had to charge fees in the thousands of dollars to perform weddings and baptisms.

"They changed the locks, they escorted the pastor from the church back in November," said churchgoer Leonara Barron.

The property is owned by the city of Los Angeles. Both the church and businesses in the area are complaining the lease rates are going up and they simply can't afford it.

"They're trying to charge us $3,000 per baptism, per wedding, any religious activity we have will have to be charged at a rate of $3,000 per activity," said Barron.

"If they're going to charge $3,200, that will be the first time I heard that," said L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich.

Trutanich says the current lease fees are almost nothing. Churchgoers said it's a dollar a year. Trutanich says the new rates have to be fair and can't show favoritism to any church or religion.

"Our goal is basically to find a fair and just rent," said Trutanich.

The L.A. City Council took up the issue Wednesday, trying to work out an agreement.

"The city cannot subsidize religious activity. It's a violation of the separation of church and state," said L.A. Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry Miller.

"We want you to instruct your city employees to give us the key to our church and to deal with the lease in a fair and equitable way," said one churchgoer in front of council Wednesday.

In a 13-0 vote, city council members agreed to give back the keys to the church to the pastor and try to work out an agreement within the next 45 days.

"This church is open to all denominations, or to anyone who just wants to visit, whether they are religious or not," said Barron.

They city will officially give the pastor back the key on Friday. There will be services held Sunday.