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One of San Juan Capstrano’s historic buildings
Chuck and Stephanie Fromm already have been fined $300 for holding Bible studies for their friends at their home, and they face the potential for additional fines of $500 for each study held, according to a legal team taking their case to court.
The newest conflict over Bible studies in homes in America arose in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., where city officials say city code section 9-3.301 prohibits religious organizations in residential neighborhoods without a conditional-use permit, a sometimes very expensive procedure.
The code cites “churches, temples, synagogues, monasteries, religious retreats, and other places of religious worship and other fraternal and community service organizations.”
But a Bible study in a home?
“Imposing a heavy-handed permit requirement on a home Bible study is outrageous,” said Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, which is working on the case on behalf of the Fromms.
“In a city so rich with religious history and tradition, this is particularly egregious. An informal gathering in a home cannot be treated with suspicion by the government, or worse than any other gathering of friends, just because it is religious. We cannot allow this to happen in America, and we will fight as long and as hard as it takes to restore this group’s religious freedom.”
In this case, the city is demanding that the home Bible study is banned because it is a “church,” unless it purchases a ‘Conditional Use Permit” from the city.
Pacific Justice said it has represented larger churches that have been required to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars as part of the permit process on such items as engineering and traffic studies, architectural designs. The process includes public hearings and ultimately can result in a rejection by the city.
Pacific Justice says the Fromms already have been fined $300, and an appeal to the city was denied.
The organization points out that the city was founded as a Christian mission in the 1700s and is home to California’s oldest building still in use, a chapel where Father Junipero Serra celebrated mass.
Pacific Justice said it is appealing the city’s demands to California Superior Court in Orange County.
A report from the city’s Dispatch newspaper said that Fromm, publisher of Worship Leader Magazine, wanted to hold Bible studies on Wednesdays that drew some 20 people, while similar studies on Sundays attracted up to 50 to their acreage that includes their home, a corral, a barn, a pool and a huge back yard.
The newspaper said city records showed someone complained, however, and a code enforcement officer first gave them a verbal warning and then issued citations in May and June.
“We don’t like lawsuits, but we have to stand up for what’s right. It’s not just a personal issue,” Stephanie Fromm told the newspaper. “Can you imagine anybody in any neighborhood, that one person can call and make it a living hell for someone else? That’s wrong … and it’s just sad.”
A trial is scheduled for Oct. 7.
The case is similar to a previous dispute in San Diego County. There, officials apologized after a code-enforcement officer tried to shut down a Bible study.