CASTRO VALLEY — A nearly decade-old saga surrounding plans to build a new Christian school in Castro Valley is set to begin perhaps its most consequential chapter next month in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

The case of Redwood Christian School and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty v. Alameda County is set to be heard in Judge Samuel Conti's courtroom.

The lawsuit, filed in 2001, encompasses everything from religious freedoms and land use regulations to the will of the voters and money, and could seta precedent for the enforcement of a relatively new federal law intended to protect religious institutions, houses of worship and the general public from discrimination in zoning.

The focus of the lawsuit is the school's and Becket Fund's claims that the county infringed on the school's religious freedom by denying it permits needed to build a 650-student junior and senior high school on 56 acres in Palomares Canyon along Interstate 580. The county Board of Supervisors rejected the project in 2001, just after the county planning commission also had denied it. Both bodies said, among other things, that the school was not right for the Palomares site because of its size and the increased traffic it would bring to the semirural area.

However, attorneys for the Becket Fund, a nonprofit public interest law firm that represents religious groups, have argued that the school has a right to build based on the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. The act forbids land-use regulations designed to hinder religious exercise.

There are a number of similar lawsuits across the country involving this act, said Kevin Snider, chief counsel for the Citrus Heights-based Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit legal defense organization specializing in the defense of religious freedom and other civil liberties.

Snider, however, said since the act is relatively new and land-use cases can take a while to work their way through the court system, many are still in litigation.

"The thing is, these are land use cases, and usually land use cases take years," Snider said.

Redwood Christian's junior and senior school — which currently resides in the old Martin Elementary School in San Lorenzo — has sought a permanent home for more than 20 years. Redwood Christian has an elementary school in Castro Valley and started to buy land in Palomares Canyon in 1997.

After three years of purchasing land, planning, environmental reviews and meetings, Redwood Christian put to the county a proposal for a new junior and senior school — a proposal the county denied. Redwood Christian's suit stated that the school spent $4.4 million on the land and the planning process.

Alameda County Counsel Richard Winnie said denial of the project had everything to do with the Palomares land's agricultural zoning and nothing to do with Redwood being a religious institution. Winnie said school officials had been warned by the county that they would not be able to build on the land when they were purchasing it, but that they nevertheless went ahead with the deals.

"They went ahead anyhow in the hopes of (the county) making an exception," Winnie said. "They have shown no willingness to compromise at all, and in land-use cases, compromising is important. Neighbors have to respect neighbors."

On top of that, as the project was being denied by the planning commission, county voters passed Measure D, designed to prevent urban sprawl and protect open rural areas such as Palomares Canyon. The county argues it is because of Measure D that the school decided to sue, since the land is unable to be developed.

Derek Gaubatz, director of litigation for the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund, denies all of the county's claims.

"This is a property the county identified as property that a school could be built on," Gaubatz said. "All we're doing is looking for a home. We still want to build a school there."

The Becket Fund states in the lawsuit that the county has placed "a substantial burden" on Redwood Christian's religious exercise, expression and association, and "treats Redwood Christian on unequal terms in comparison with secular public schools."

The suit also charges the county with "an impermissible and uncompensated taking of private property for public use."

Gaubatz added that the school did try to compromise and make the facility smaller, but the county supervisors were uninterested in those efforts.

In the suit, the school also seeks $30 million in damages from the county for loss of tuition income and for an increase in construction costs because construction was supposed to begin and has been delayed.

Winnie said he feels the Becket Fund also is seeking something else in this case.

"They're rabid," he said. "They're totally engaged in this case. They see this as a way of establishing new law that makes it possible to triumph local zoning."

Gaubatz says the case is about something else entirely.

"This case is really about these kids and families in Alameda County who want a school, want an education," Gaubatz said. "That's what is important and that's what this is about."

The trial is set to begin Feb. 13.

Chris Metinko can be reached at (510) 763-5418.