SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. A couple who was fined $300 for holding a Bible study in their home is challenging the city policy, which could result in additional fines of $500 per meeting violation.
City officials maintain that Bible studies are the same as churches and, as such, require zoning approval known as a Conditional Use Permit. But the process of securing such a process, which can include environmental review, seismic retrofits and public hearings are lengthy and can often cost thousands of dollars.
"Imposing a heavy-handed permit requirement on a home Bible study is outrageous," said Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, which is representing Chuck and Stephanie Fromm. "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."
San Juan Capistrano was founded as a mission in the late 1700s and is home to California's oldest building still in use, a chapel where Father Junipero Serra celebrated mass.
Fromm said a hearing officer told him that regular gatherings of more than three people require a conditional use permit and that further religious gatherings in the home would be subject to a $500 fine per meeting. The Fromm's appealed the hearing officer's decision, but lost, prompting Dacus to turn to the Superior Court.
According to Dacus, the Bible study group met on Sunday mornings until its hosts were threatened with further fines by the city. Chuck Fromm said his property was perfectly suited for the gatherings, held inside their family room and patio area, and that there was no noise beyond normal conversation and quiet music on the home stereo system.
Dacus said that many of the Fromms' neighbors have written letters of support, denying they were disturbed by the presence of the Bible study. The group is not affiliated with any particular church, nor is it seeking to establish a church in the home.
The Fromm case is the latest in a series of attempts by California cities and counties to restrict religious gatherings in residential areas.
In 2009, cases surfaced in Rancho Cucamonga and San Diego County. In both instances, the host families were holding Bible studies in their homes. Government officials in both those cases reversed there initial findings and allowed the studies to continue in the homes without permits.