Couple ordered to shut down home Bible study

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — A suburban California family who has been hosting a weekly Bible study in their home for about 15 people has been told by San Diego County officials to stop the meetings or seek a costly Conditional Use Permit.

Attorney Dean Broyles of the Western Center for Law & Policy has sent a demand letter to the county on behalf of his clients, Pastor David and Mary Jones, who live in an unincorporated area of the county. The May 26 letter asks Pam Elias, chief of the county's Department of Planning and Land Use, to rescind an administrative citation issued to the couple, calling the action "inappropriate and without merit."

"The use to which this citation refers is nothing more than a weekly Bible study and a time of fellowship at the Jones' residence which the department has singled out for religiously based, unequal treatment …"

The Joneses have hosted the study for about five years and the gatherings include dinner, fellowship and a Bible study. Attendance has varied, the attorney said, from five to 27 people, but averages 15.

If the county fails to respond in a timely manner, Broyles indicated possible legal action.

According to Broyles' 12-page demand letter, a county code enforcement officer visited the couples' home on Good Friday after receiving a complaint from a non-resident visiting in the neighborhood. The code officer began taking pictures of home's exterior and later began questioning the wife, who was home alone.

Broyles said the officer asked Mary Jones several questions, including if the group prays or uses the words "amen" and "praise the Lord." Jones answered yes.

A few days later a formal letter, dated April 14, was sent to the couple warning them they were in violation of county ordinances and to cease and desist with the "religious assembly" or file for formal permitting through a CPU. Non-compliance would result in escalating fines of $100 to $1,000.

Broyles argues that the weekly Bible study does not fit the legal description of a religious assembly, according to the county's own ordinance. In addition, he said requiring the Joneses to seek a permit violates their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and peaceful assembly.

The questioning of the code officer, as well as the language in the citation, clearly indicated the objection was to "religious assembly," he argued.

"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 meeting, Tupperware parties, Bunco nights, bridge clubs, etc," the attorney wrote.

If the county had concerns over traffic and public safety issues for the neighborhood, Broyles said other remedies could have been pursued rather than issuing a blanket ban against the meetings.

Finally, Broyles said, the county action violates the federal protections in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which was signed into law nine years ago by President Bill Clinton. That law prevents municipalities from imposing a "substantial burden" in the religious practices of a person or group.

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