Code enforcement officials in San Diego who banned a pastor and his wife from holding Bible studies in their home or face fines have taken less than 24 hours to respond to a demand letter from a legal team representing the couple in what could be a major First Amendment dispute.
And now they have a deadline to withdraw statements that lawyers believe already have created an irreparable violation of the First Amendment.
Dean Broyles, the chief of the Western Center for Law & Policy, told WND today the letter was dispatched to Pam Elias, chief of the land use division for the county of San Diego, on Tuesday, and a meeting was held among the parties yesterday.
The letter demanded the county “agree in writing to rescind Administrative Citation #DPLU-40576 and the accompanying Cease and Desist Order” that told Pastor David and Mary Jones they would be fined and penalized “if they continue to hold their weekly Bible study in their home.”
The letter from Broyles said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the loss of First Amendment freedoms, “even for minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable harm.”
And it provided a deadline for the county to respond.
“As a result, time is of the essence, and both the Joneses and the WCLP respectfully demand that written confirmation of the county’s agreement to permit the Joneses to continue holding their regularly scheduled Bible study in their home without further threat of sanction be provided within five business days of the date of this letter. Should the county fail or refuse to comply, the Joneses are prepared to pursue all available legal remedies, including litigation.”
Last week, WND broke the story about the case that apparently was sparked by a complaint from a visitor to a residence of one of the Joneses’ neighbors.
The sequence of events developed this way.
“On April 10, 2009, Good Friday, a female county employee came to the Joneses’ residence. The county employee appeared in the front yard and proceeded to take pictures of our clients’ home,” the letter said. “She noticed the Joneses’ daughters in the front yard and asked to speak with their mother. Although she did not provide any paper work or identification, subsequent information obtained by the WCLP leads us to believe that the county employee who went to the Joneses’ residence was Code Enforcement Officer Cherie Cham.”
“Do you have a regular weekly meeting in your home? Do you sing? Do you say ‘amen’?” the official reportedly asked. “Do you say, ‘Praise the Lord’?”
The pastor’s wife answered yes.
She says she was then told, however, that she must stop holding “religious assemblies” until she and her husband obtain a Major Use Permit from the county, a permit that often involves traffic and environmental studies, compliance with parking and sidewalk regulations and costs that top tens of thousands of dollars.
If they fail to pay for the MUP, the county official reportedly warned, the couple would be charged escalating fines beginning at $100, then $200, $500, $1000, “and then it will get ugly.”
“Four things become clear when this case is legally analyzed,” said the letter. “First, the Joneses’ weekly Bible study is not a ‘religious assembly’ as defined by the county’s ordinances rendering the requirement of an MUP inapplicable. Second, the county’s order to stop hosting the weekly Bible study is a blatant violation of the Joneses’ First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion.
“Third, the order also violates their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble. Fourth, the county’s action is a substantial burden on the Joneses’ ability to practice their religion in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000,” the letter said.
Elias did not return a telephone message from WND asking for comment.
But Broyles said the result of yesterday’s meeting was an agreement that the status quo would be preserved while the dispute is resolved – meaning there will be no fines or other citations for the family from the county.
“They acknowledged all the publicity the case was getting. That’s part of the reason they met with us so quickly,” he said.
He also said the county appeared to be “backing off” the religious assembly angle in favor of considering “other issues,” such as parking, to apply in the case.
“Our concern with that is that they’re trying to change the aspects of the case,” he said. “They want to back out gracefully.”
Instead, Broyles said, the citations should be withdrawn and the county should apologize.
“They were targeting our clients’ religious exercise,” he said.
A forum page for the local Channel 10 television station featured a number of comments in support of the couple after it reported on the initial controversy.
“This is absolutely disturbing – and if true (I have no reason to doubt that it is), then the line of questioning reported in the victim’s testimony as conducted by this official was completely wrong, unconstitutional, and a clear violation of the public’s trust,” said one contributor. “Our government is not the thought police – that official had no business whatsoever asking those questions, and it deeply concerns me to see such a line of questioning be even tolerated to exist as a matter of public perception without the leadership of SD County issuing a public apology and making their role in this matter very clear: this regulation does not apply to this home bible study – nor any other private home gathering for that matter.”
The letter said a group that averages about 15 in attendance clearly does not involve a “religious assembly.”
The county definition for that is “public assembly such as customarily occurs in synagogues, temples, and churches.”
“These facts along are sufficient to render (the citation) invalid,” the letter said.
But it said the issue also involves the First Amendment.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” the letter quoted from the First Amendment.
The citation and cease and desist order “were directed solely towards the Joneses’ religious activity,” the letter said. “Specifically, the Joneses were not asked to stop hosting any kind of assembly generally, they were ordered to stop ‘religious assembly.’ Indeed, if the county was not targeting religious activity per se, it would presumably have to forbid any and all secular events where friends and neighbors are invited to a resident’s home on a regular basis, including, but not limited to in-home poker games, book club meetings, Monday night football parties, girl and boy scout meetings, Tupperware parties, Bunco nights, bridge clubs, etc.”
Broyles earlier told WND that oppressive governments, such as communist China or Nazi Germany, worked to repress home fellowships, labeling them the “underground church” or “subversive groups,” legally compelling Christians to meet only in sanctioned, government-controlled “official” churches.
“Therein lies my concern,” Broyles said. “If people can’t practice their religious beliefs in the privacy of their own homes with a few of their friends, that’s an egregious First Amendment violation.”