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City Fines Couple for Hosting Bible Studies Without a Permit

Officials say the meetings violate residential use policies.

The city of San Juan Capistrano, California, has fined a family for holding regular Bible studies in their home.

Chuck and Stephanie Fromm, who have been hosting Bible studies and other gatherings in their home since 1994, were cited for violating a municipal code which requires a conditional use permit (CUP) for religious, fraternal, or nonprofit organizations that meet in residential areas. The Fromms were fined twice for a total of $300. When they appealed to the city, they were informed that the violations would be upheld and that any future meetings without a CUP would face a fine of $500 each.

The code in question prohibits such groups of three or more people meeting without a CUP, said Chuck Fromm, who is the former president of Maranatha! Music and co-founder and editor of Worship Leader magazine.

"The law says any nonprofit or fraternal organization," he said. "If I'm having five guys over to watch Sunday football every week, that's a regular meeting of three or more people that would require a [CUP]. Now, have they cited anybody for that? No, they're citing a religious meeting."

The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), who is now representing the Fromms, plans to fight to have the city apologize to the Fromms and refund their money, PJI president Brad Dacus said. The organization also hopes to have the policy revised.

"No family in America should ever have to worry about a local government fining them simply for meeting with their friends and family in their own home to read the Bible or pray together," Dacus said. "The city is demanding that this family has to pay money to the city in order not even to have a Bible study, but in order just to seek permission from the city to be able to have a Bible study. That is totalitarian, it is a clear breach of fundamental civil liberties, and we at [PJI] intend to halt it in its tracks."

San Juan Capistrano issued a quote from city attorney Omar Sandoval stating that "the City of San Juan Capistrano does not prohibit home Bible studies. The issue with the Fromm case involves the question of when a property developed for residential use has been transformed into a place of public assembly. … The Fromm case further involves regular meetings on Sunday mornings and Thursday afternoons with up to 50 people, with impacts on the residential neighborhood on street access and parking."

However, Fromm said that the larger group meetings take place at the local clubhouse, a facility owned by all the residents in the area. The complex has seating for more than 100 people and has its own parking lot, Fromm said. According to a timeline of events he posted on his blog, the group did meet in the Fromm home for nearly a year while the clubhouse was being renovated, but it has moved back to meeting in the clubhouse in July. Currently, the Fromms plan to appeal the violation to the Orange County Superior Court in early October. There are also plans to file a case with the federal courts, Fromm said.

Since the law is meant for general applicability, the success of the case in court will depend whether or not it can be proven that the city was singling out religious groups, said Alan Brownstein, professor of law at the UC Davis School of Law. "Unless you can show that religion is being singled out for discriminatory or disfavored treatment, you don't have a free exercise claim anymore," he said.

In the meantime, Fromm and his wife are continuing to host Bible studies in their home. "They said they're going to cite us $500 for every meeting," he said. "We're [saying], 'Okay, cite us.'"

This is not the first time home Bible studies have been cited or barred in the recent past. In April 2009, San Diego county officials issued a warning to David and Mary Jones for hosting a weekly Bible study in their home without a permit for religious assembly; the county rescinded the warning in June of that year. In November of that year, Joe Sutherland of Gilbert, Arizona, was given a cease-and-desist order for church meetings in his home because it violated the city’s zoning code. The city council revised the code the following March to allow the meetings.

Related Elsewhere:

The Capistrano Dispatch, Los Angeles Times, and ABC News have also covered the dispute.

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