November 23, 2011 Print
2011-11-23-ts

City Drops Fines Against Bible Study Hosts

by Karla Dial

A California court case that drew national attention was settled late last week. The city of San Juan Capistrano agreed to pay back the $300 it had fined a couple hosting a popular Bible study in their home and amend a city ordinance requiring them to get a permit.

Chuck and Stephanie Fromm’s weekly Bible study has been known to draw up to 50 people — which prompted an atheist neighbor to complain to the city this summer. The city, citing an ordinance requiring churches to obtain conditional use permits, fined the Fromms twice for refusing to get one.

“It was always a question of whether they were a church or not, and they were not,” City Attorney Omar Sandoval told The Orange County Register when the settlement was announced.

In exchange for the refunded money and changes to the ordinance — which the city Planning Commission discussed Tuesday evening — the Fromms dropped their religious-freedom lawsuit against the city, which had been ongoing since August.

“The city has now rescinded those fines, completely reversed its  direction, and made a commitment to no longer be oppressive toward families having bible studies in their homes,” said Pacific Justice Institute President Brad Dacus. “The good news is that whether a family is meeting in their homes to study and worship on Wednesday night, versus Sunday morning, it really doesn’t matter concerning the basic freedom we have as Americans to do that, as long as we’re not creating a nuisance or a health or safety issue for those around us.

Earlier this year, Dacus questioned the constitutionality of the city’s only requiring “religious, fraternal or nonprofit” organizations to obtain permits before meeting in homes, when people hosting other types of gatherings, such as private viewing parties for sporting events, are not.

The new definition the Planning Commission is considering would put “religious, fraternal and nonprofit organizations” under the heading of “routine assembly” use: Groups of 25 people or less that gather less than once a week wouldn’t have to apply for permits. The commission is also considering other changes that have yet to be determined.

“At this point, we just want to clarify the code so it’s clear what particular use requires a permit,” Sandoval told the Register.

The Pacific Justice Institute plans to stay on the case until that happens.

“We will continue fighting to ensure that SJC and other cities put freedom first,” attorney Michael Peffer said, “especially when it comes to informal gatherings in private homes.”

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