Officials in an Arizona city where workers recently told members of a small church they are not allowed to hold Bible studies in a home and then backed up the warning with an official opinion from the city planner – an issue on which WND reported – say they now hope to make changes that will allow such religious activity.

Officials in Gilbert, Ariz., today told WND in an e-mail that the changes apparently were in the works even as the city continued handing out warnings.

“This is a community with patriotic citizens who study and defend the Constitution,” Vice Mayor Linda Abbott said in the e-mail. “We understand the importance of maintaining religious freedom.”

WND reported on Friday that the city had 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.

Pastor Joe Sutherland of Oasis of Truth Church was 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.

Then the church obtained a written letter from Mike Milillo, the city’s senior planner, providing confirmation: “The assembly activities associated with the church, including Bible studies, church leadership meetings and church fellowship activities are not permitted.”

The ban had prompted the Alliance Defense Fund to launch an appeal with the city over the decision.

Daniel Blomberg, one of the attorneys who worked on the appeal, said, “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.”

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Now the statement released by the city has been headlined: “Gilbert remains committed to religious freedom.”

Under the names of the mayor, vice mayor and members of the council, the announcement sent to WND today said some six weeks ago members of the council learned that a zoning code “intended to help neighborhoods with traffic, parking and safety concerns” was being interpreted by town staff to mean that small church groups could not meet in homes.

“The council immediately asked town staff to make changes to the code and not enforce the code while changes were being considered,” the announcement said.

“Unfortunately, without the town council’s knowledge, one church group had already been told to stop holding meetings in their home. Last week the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) filed an appeal for the Oasis of Truth Church located in Gilbert. While town staff had anticipated presenting to the town council proposed zoning changes at the next town council meeting (scheduled for March 23), ADF’s appeal reached the media on Friday, March 12, causing concern that town of Gilbert restricted religious freedom guaranteed in the Constitution.”

Mayor John Lewis called it “unfortunate” that the council didn’t know what employees were doing.

“Gilbert is known as a family-oriented community and our faith groups are a vital part of our town. We want to keep it that way,” he said.

The announcement said there was “overwhelming support” on the council to “expedite changes in the code.”

“Yesterday, Mayor Lewis and Acting Town Manager Collin DeWitt attended the Sunday worship services of the Oasis of Truth Church. DeWitt said, ‘We had a wonderful experience as we met with the three leaders of the church and their families. We are glad that they selected Gilbert as their home,'” the town announcement said.

The city said town attorneys were being asked to include the ADF and the church in the review process.

Dale Schowengerdt, who worked with Blomberg on the case, told WND the city also had confirmed it would not enforce the code while it was being changed, a process that could take several weeks.

“It is a very good sign,” he said.

WND reported a similar situation in San Diego County. In that case, officials eventually withdrew a warning letter and a cease-and-desist order they had issued against a pastor who had been holding a weekly Bible study in his home.

“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.”

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