SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, CA, September 21, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A Christian husband and wife from California have been fined by their City Council for lacking a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) while holding Bible studies and prayer meetings in their home.
“The fact that a governing body can effectively shut down an act of worship taking place in a private home does not sound like the heart of America,” said Chuck Fromm, who hosts the meetings.
What is at stake, he says, is “the right to gather.”
Since June 2010, the Fromms have opened their home on the northern outskirts of San Juan Capistrano, CA for a Sunday morning Bible study due to renovations at their normal place of meeting. Since last January, they have also hosted a Thursday evening Bible study, which like the Sunday meeting is said to draw anywhere from 6 to 40 people.
The Fromms say the non-denominational meetings are well-suited to their home, located on a sizable acreage similar to surrounding homes, and they say they have been careful to maintain low noise levels both inside the house and on the patio. They say visitors who attended the meetings never had trouble finding a place to park on the property, which is large enough to accommodate a corral, barn, and pool.
Last April, the city of San Juan Capistrano issued a notice to the Fromms stating that they had violated the city’s Municipal Code for Residential Districts by holding meetings for an “organization” in a residential area.
Section 9-3.301 of the San Juan Capistrano code prohibits “religious, fraternal, or nonprofit organizations” in residential neighbourhoods without a Conditional Use Permit. This prohibition applies to “churches, temples, synagogues, monasteries, religious retreats, and other places of religious worship and other fraternal and community service organizations.” San Juan Capistrano has a reactive code enforcement policy, meaning that officers only respond to complaints.
The Fromms object that the meetings neither serve an organized church nor aim to become one, but are simply a gathering of believers of all stripes.
“Can you imagine anybody in any neighbourhood, that one person can call and make it a living hell for someone else?,” said Stephanie Fromm. “That’s wrong … and it’s just sad.”
Since last May, the Fromms have paid the city $300 in fines for holding their religious gatherings, but have also appealed the citation. Despite letters of support sent to the city from several of Fromm’s neighbors, who deny that the meetings are disturbing the peace, the city sided with the complainer last month.
The city’s hearing officer reiterated to the Fromms that regular gatherings of more than 3 people require a CUP and warned them that future infractions would carry a heftier penalty of $500, up from the June fine amount of $200.
“We want to be able to use our home. We’ve paid a lot and invested a lot in our home and backyard … I should be able to be hospitable in my home,” Stephanie Fromm told the Capistrano Dispatch.
Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) president Brad Dacus, who is challenging the city on behalf of the Fromms, criticized the charges.
“Imposing a heavy-handed permit requirement on a home Bible study is outrageous,” said Dacus in a press release.
“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.”
Dacus told LifeSiteNews.com (LSN) that, if the charge were not challenged, “it becomes a threat to all religious freedom across the country.”
“This city seems to be digging in their heels. We are confident that we will prevail one way or the other because of the Constitution,” he said.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of the people to “peaceably” assemble.
After San Juan Capistrano’s hearing officer denied the Fromms’ appeal, the case to a higher court, and is scheduled to appear October 7 in Orange County Superior Court.
Dan Felix, Issuing Officer for San Juan Capistrano, did not return calls or e-mail to LSN by press time.
San Juan Capistrano, CA
Code Enforcement Services
E-mail: [email protected]