City officials in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., have launched the process to change their city regulations after they faced a nationwide uproar over a decision to issue a citation and assess a $300 fine against a couple for having a Bible study.
“There is no reason why any family in the United States of America should have to worry about the government crashing their home Bible study, or whatever meeting they’re having,” said Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, which has worked on the case involving the Fromm family.
Just this week, city council members voted unanimously to adopt changes to their zoning codes, based on recommendations from the institute, following the issue that developed over the Bible study.
Dacus said his hope is that other cities “can learn from this wonderful resolution … to not make the same mistake twice.”
The backlash over the city’s actions followed its decision to issue a citation to and fine the organizers of the Bible study. PJI’s court actions earlier convinced the city to reverse course and refund the fines that had been applied to Chuck and Stephanie Fromm.
At the time, they were told that they faced the potential for additional fines of $500 for each additional Bible study they would hold.
The city code, section 9-3.301, was cited for prohibiting religious organizations in residential neighborhoods without a conditional-use permit, a sometimes very expensive procedure.
The code cites “churches, temples, synagogues, monasteries, religious retreats, and other places of religious worship and other fraternal and community service organizations.”
Dacus said earlier the “heavy-handed permit requirement” was simply unrealistic.
“In a city so rich with religious history and tradition, this is particularly egregious. An informal gathering in a home cannot be treated with suspicion by the government, or worse than any other gathering of friends, just because it is religious. We cannot allow this to happen in America, and we will fight as long and as hard as it takes to restore this group’s religious freedom,” he said when the case developed.
But with the decision to make changes in its city code, Dacus said the city is on the right track.
The Pacific Justice Institute reported the changes being adopted by San Juan Capistrano conform to the California Building Code, which does not apply church building standards to home-based groups with fewer than 50 attendees.
As a result, small home-based religious groups in the city will be treated like similarly sized secular gatherings and will not be required to get costly use permits.
WND previously reported on similar controversies in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and in Gilbert, Ariz.
Pacific Justice said it has represented larger churches that have been required to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars as part of the permit process on such items as engineering and traffic studies and architectural designs. The process includes public hearings and ultimately can result in a rejection by the city.
Dacus’ statement on the latest developments:
Fromm, the publisher of Worship Leader Magazine, wanted to hold Bible studies on Wednesdays that drew some 20 people, while similar studies on Sundays attracted up to 50 to their acreage that includes their home, a corral, a barn, a pool and a huge back yard.
The case also is similar to a previous dispute in San Diego County. There, officials apologized after a code-enforcement officer tried to shut down a Bible study.