San Diego County reverses order, home Bible study OK

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — San Diego County's chief administrator has rescinded a citation made to a local pastor who was conducting a home-based Bible study on his property.

"I want to offer my apology to you, your wife and your congregation for the unfortunate events of the past several weeks," Walt Ekard, the CAO for the county, said in a letter dated June 3 and addressed to Pastor David Jones.

According to Dean Broyles, president of the Western Center for Law and Policy, Jones and his wife, Mary, were cited earlier this year after a code enforcement officer visited their Bonita home. The code officer interviewed Mary, who was home alone, and began asking her questions about a weekly meeting. She asked if the group prays or uses the words "amen" and "praise the Lord." Jones answered yes.

A citation came later by mail. Published reports of the incident became a popular item on the Internet, prompting hundreds of calls and letters to the county from around the globe.

"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," he said.

Ekard attributed the action on "unclear language in the zoning ordinance," and vowed that county staff, both the Department of Land Use and County Counsel, will review zoning ordinances in an effort to clarify the language to prevent future citations.

"The department will develop measures to improve internal code enforcement procedures including a supervisor's review of assembly related cases prior to issuance of any notices," he said, adding that training for code officers will be updated.

"You have my personal assurance that these actions will be undertaken immediately," the administrator said.

In closing his letter, Ekard reiterated an assurance he made in an earlier letter to the Joneses that the issue centered on a land-use complaint, not an attempt to thwart religious expression.

"It was in no way an attempt by San Diego County to infringe upon your religious freedoms," Ekard wrote. "If you knew me personally and were familiar with my background, I think you would be satisfied that as the chief executive of San Diego County government, I would never condone a deliberate attack on religious activity. Indeed it is important for me to communicate very clearly and definitively that county government does not condone and will never condone discrimination under any circumstances on the basis of one's religious beliefs. To do so would not only violate the law, but would violate a principle that I personally treasure."

Broyles lauded the decision to reverse the earlier action.

"We look forward to working with the county to ensure that the clarification of its ordinances and training of its personnel are implemented promptly and efficiently so that all citizens of San Diego can be assured that their constitutional rights are protected," Broyles said in a statement. "We are confident that, as a result of the county's statements, Bible studies and prayer meetings held in homes throughout San Diego County will be free from government regulation, as is guaranteed by the First Amendment."