Saturday, March 13, 2010

Arizona Town Bans Bible Study

The pastor of the seven-member Oasis of Truth Church in Gilbert, AZ was ordered by a cease and desist letter to terminate religious meetings in his home, no matter the size or frequency, based on zoning regulations. The small church, which had held meetings in various members’ homes on a weekly rotation, met for just a few hours each week. The town cites its zoning codes which it contends prohibit churches from holding home meetings of any size. This includes Bible studies, potluck dinners or even three person church leadership meetings. The defense of the ban cites traffic, parking, and building safety concerns, yet doesn’t specifically prevent the likes of Cub Scout Meetings, football or business parties. In November, the church was ordered by letter from a Gilbert code compliance officer to terminate the church meetings in Pastor Joe Sutherland’s home. Although no complaints were cited, the termination order was a response to signs about the meetings near Sutherland’s home. In response, Sutherland ceased the meetings in December and requested clarification of the zoning code from the town’s zoning administrator. He was answered first with an informal response to his questions.The reply offered a more detailed and formal response in the form of a zoning interpretation, provided at a fee of $305, upholding the alleged basis for the ban. Attorneys for the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) have filed an appeal in the past week to overturn the decision. “Christian church groups shouldn’t be singled out for discrimination and banned from meeting in their own homes. The interpretation and enforcement of the town’s code is clearly unconstitutional. It bans 200,000 Gilbert residents from meeting in their private homes for organized religious purposes-an activity encouraged in the Bible, practiced for thousands of years, and protected by the First Amendment,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Daniel Bloomberg. The appeal argues, in part, that the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause doesn’t permit a ban on church meetings where other meetings are permitted, and Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act (FERA) protects “Arizona citizens’ right to exercise their religious beliefs free from undue government interference.” Meanwhile, the church holds a weekly meeting at a local school. Due to the rental costs and the size of the group, they’ve scaled back to meeting once a week on Sunday.