Bob Unruh joined WND in 2006 after nearly three decades with the Associated Press, as well as several Upper Midwest newspapers, where he covered everything from legislative battles and sports to tornadoes and homicidal survivalists. He is also a photographer whose scenic work has been used commercially.More ↓Less ↑
The city of Gilbert, Ariz., has ordered a group of seven adults to stop gathering for Bible studies in a private home because such meetings are forbidden by the city’s zoning codes.
The issue was brought to a head when city officials wrote a letter to a pastor and his wife informing them they had 10 days to quit having the meetings in their private home.
The ban, however, prompted a response from the Alliance Defense Fund, which filed an appeal with the city as the first step in its campaign to overturn a provision it describes as illegal.
“The interpretation and enforcement of the town’s code is clearly unconstitutional, ” said Daniel Blomberg, a member of the litigation team for ADF. “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.”
The appeal was filed on behalf of the members, all seven, of the Oasis of Truth Church.
Pastor Joe Sutherland had been told in a letter from code compliance officer Steve Wallace that the people were not allowed to meet in a home for church activities under the city’s Land Development Code.
There had been no complaints about the meetings, which had been rotating among members’ homes before the officer wrote the letter and ordered the group to “terminate all religious meetings … regardless of their size, nature or frequency,” because he noticed signs about the meetings.
The town interprets its law so that “churches within its borders cannot have any home meetings of any size, including Bible studies, three-person church leadership meetings and potluck dinners,” ADF said.
A city letter confirmed, “Given that the church is considered to be religious assembly, and given the LDC provisions prohibiting that use on Local streets without Use Permits and prohibiting it in single-family residential structures, it follows that the church meetings cannot be held in the home.”
“The assembly activities associated with the church, including Bible studies, church leadership meetings and church fellowship activities are not permitted,” wrote Mike Milillo, the city’s senior planner.
“This ban is defended based upon traffic, parking, and building safety concerns. However, nothing in its zoning code prevents weekly Cub Scouts meetings, Monday Night Football parties with numerous attendees or large business parties from being held on a regular basis in private homes,” the ADF said.
The few adults in the church had met for a few hours weekly in members’ homes.
The ADF argues such bans violate the Constitution’s free-exercise clause, and even the state’s Free Exercise of Religion Act protects such meetings.
Further, the restrictions imposed by the city violate the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which grants significant authority for churches to pursue their ministry goals.
Finally, Blomberg said, “the First Amendment’s free-speech clause prevents the town from stopping the church from holding its meetings on the public sidewalk outside the pastor’s home, yet the town won’t allow him to hold the same meetings just a few feet away in the privacy of his own living room.”
The small church has been forced to halt its regular meetings. It meets now in a local school but only can afford the rental once a week.
A spokeswoman for the city of Gilbert told WND city officials were aware of the concern and planned to address it.
Vice Mayor Linda Abbott told WND the code apparently was adopted years earlier, and there was considerable concern on the city council because of the current issues.
“I’m not in favor of that code. That is something we would want revisited,” she said.
“I want to offer my apology to you, your wife and your congregation for the unfortunate events of the past several weeks,” said the letter from Walter F. Ekard, chief officer of the county. “My review of the situation shows that no administrative citation warning should have been issued and that a major-use permit is not required for the Bible study you have in your home.”