(WSJ Houses of Worship) Sarah Pulliam Bailey: When the Zoning Board Closes Your Church

Posted by Kendall Harmon

What counts as a church? Chuck and Stephanie Fromm recently found out.

After hosting several periodic Bible studies for up to 50 people in their home in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., the Fromms were fined $300 for violating a city ordinance that prohibits groups of three or more people from gathering without a permit. The couple appealed and city officials agreed last month to reimburse them and re-examine the ordinance, but the case created a stir in religious circles.

"It struck a deep nerve. Bible studies in people's homes have been a long part of American culture and heritage," says Brad Dacus of the Pacific Research Institute, which took on the Fromms' case. "We're concerned that other cities will try to get away with the same thing."

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8 Comments
Posted December 9, 2011 at 3:30 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Capt. Father Warren wrote:

the Fromms were fined $300 for violating a city ordinance that prohibits groups of three or more people from gathering without a permit

And where might the Constitutional basis for that ordinance be found?

It’s good this story has hit the internet and blogs in a big way.  I used it as Exhibit A in a religous class that discussed how all our first amendment rights are being erroded by an ever expanding central Government and local governments emboldened by sense that we exist to serve them rather than the other way around. 

Fortunately for the Fromms, the city bureaucrats backed down when confronted.  We can’t count on that always happening and the longer we acquiesce to this the more entrenced it will become.  To paraphrase a saying from the National Rifle Association, “a right not exercised is a right soon lost”

December 9, 8:23 pm | [comment link]
2. Jeremy Bonner wrote:

There is a distinct difference between a gathering of six to ten and a gathering of fifty, particularly if this is a weekly meeting. It also makes a great difference if everyone walks or if everyone takes a car and parks in a residential neighborhood.

If bible studies are being targeted and wine tastings or film showings are not, then that’s one thing, but if religious gatherings are not being singled out, there might be a public interest concern.

The thought of a fifty-person bible study doesn’t greatly appeal, to be honest. How much interaction does the individual really have?

December 9, 9:50 pm | [comment link]
3. Charles52 wrote:

I looked around their area on Google Maps street view when this story was first around (on GetReligion), and it’s not a semi-rural area with 4-5 acre “ranchettes”;  it’s a neighborhood and frankly, I wouldn’t be thrilled to have this going on in my neighborhood. 50 people twice a week is a church, and they should get a facility in an area where they can be good neighbors.

As to the size of prayer meetings, large can be nice; I did that back in the 70s, but we were in an appropriate area where our common worship was a witness (to a large state university, actually) as well as for our own spiritual growth. Personal interaction came before and after meetings, and through friendships that developed within the fellowship.

December 9, 9:59 pm | [comment link]
4. upnorfjoel wrote:

Call it “Occupy San Juan Capistrano”.  Nobody will touch ‘em.  Problem solved.

December 9, 11:15 pm | [comment link]
5. NoVA Scout wrote:

If the underlying municipal ordnance was correctly described, I would think it impossible to defend under the First Amendment.  Reading about it caused a flashback to Franco’s Spain. When I first spent time there, in the late 1960s, I was told that there were strict laws against religious gatherings in homes by Protestants.  Any such gathering was limited to x persons (can’t remember the number, but it was a single digit number) and had to be licensed.  At that time, being a callow youth without a good grounding in Spanish history, I was startled that a government would enforce such a restriction.  I kept thinking that St. Paul would have not found such a regime (which openly congratulated itself on its close links to the Church) easy to work with.

December 10, 7:31 am | [comment link]
6. Capt. Father Warren wrote:

But the ordinance language explaining who needs a conditional use permit is so broad it could apply to a group of friends who meet to watch football on Sundays. And to gain such a permit, an applicant could need a site planner, a public hearing and an entitlement planner, which could cost up to $150,000

In the “old” days if people parking on the street in your neighborhood bothered you, you would go talk to the neighbor in question.  If the thought of 50 people in a bible study was not your cup of tea, you wouldn’t go.

But in modern America, our discomforts and our feelings become the province of Government to mediate for us and to affirm us.  And so we get ridiculous government pronouncents like the one above to sooth the souls of busybodies and to restrict the rights and freedoms of everyone else.

How typical of the times: we scorn the successful and the hard working.  Instead of cheering on a couple who inspire 50 people to show up for a bible study, we mumble and grumble about the parking situation and how it offends our sensibilities.

Go Fromms!  Next year I hope you have a 100 people in your bible study and can take your efforts to a facility that will embrace them so they can be saved from your neighborhood of little minds and withered souls with their hardened hearts.

December 10, 9:42 am | [comment link]
7. Jeremy Bonner wrote:

In the “old” days if people parking on the street in your neighborhood bothered you, you would go talk to the neighbor in question. If the thought of 50 people in a bible study was not your cup of tea, you wouldn’t go.

So what do you say under such circumstances? “Your bible study is too big!” And how are people going to react to that? The ordinance as it stands may well be flawed, but the question of the appropriate size for a regular recurring event is not.

My view of a 50-person bible study has less to do with its religious character than the fact that anything corresponding to a seminar - where people are striving to teach and learn from each other - seems to work best in groups of a dozen or less. Meetings primarily for the purpose of worship are a different matter entirely, but then I think that it’s time to be thinking about a separate facility.

Just because we’re people of faith in an increasingly hostile secular world, doesn’t preclude a little courtesy and consideration for those around us.

December 10, 9:58 am | [comment link]
8. Hursley wrote:

Amen, #7. In an increasingly secular world, Christians are going to have to work harder than before to demonstrate ours is a life above reproach.

December 10, 4:37 pm | [comment link]
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