SAN DIEGO, Calif. A suburban California couple who has been hosting a weekly Bible study in their home has been given the green light to continue the meetings after earlier being ordered by San Diego County officials to stop the gatherings or seek a costly conditional use permit.
Walt Ekard, the chief administrative officer for the county of San Diego, released a statement May 29 denying published reports that code enforcement officers were trying to squash religious liberties.
"I have received dozens of e-mails and calls from people concerned about reports that the county is attempting to muzzle religious expression by shutting down a neighborhood Bible study," Ekard's statement read. "As the chief administrative officer for San Diego County, I want to say in the most direct terms: the county has never tried to stifle religious expression and never will."
His statement went on to say that his officers went to the home of Pastor David and Mary Jones to solely address a complaint about parking and traffic problems associated the Bible study.
"This is a land use issue; it's not an issue of religious expression," the administrator said.
The couple's attorney, Dean Broyles, founder of Escondido-based Western Center for Law & Policy, said he received notice from the county counsel's office just before the end of business on May 29 that the Joneses' Bible study will not be considered a "religious assembly," meaning a conditional use permit will not be needed.
"It's a huge step in the right direction and I'm hopeful, but how it's going to turnout, we'll have to see," Broyles said, adding that a follow-up meeting with county officials was planned in a few days.
The issue flared, Broyles said, when a county code enforcement officer visited the couple's home on Good Friday after receiving a complaint from a non-resident visiting in the neighborhood. The code officer began taking pictures of the 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. Noncompliance would result in escalating fines of $100 to $1,000.
Broyles said he believes the county's allegation that issue centered on parking and traffic, not religious use, was fabricated in light of the international response to the story.
"It's revisionist history," he said.
In addition to Ekard, county Supervisor Greg Cox told a local newspaper that he had received at least 400 e-mails regarding the issue. Broyles has had a similar response from around the world and spent much of a full week addressing media inquires. Even the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union drafted a letter of support for his clients, Broyles said.
Change of focus
He added that the scope of questioning from the code enforcement officer, coupled with the wording on the citation made it clear the concern was over the religious meeting, not parking. 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.
"My concern is that the county is trying to morph the First Amendment religious issues into a parking and traffic issue and that the could still harass my clients, substituting one form of harassment for another," the attorney said.
Ekard vowed to personally review the case, including the county's policies on handling complaints.
"Should I find that county staff at any level acted in a heavy-handed way; did anything inappropriate under the circumstances; or that a change or revision to our processes and procedures is warranted, I will take appropriate action immediately," the county CEO wrote. "More importantly, let me be clear: religious intolerance in any form is not, and never will be, allowed under any circumstance in San Diego County government."
The county's response seems to valid Broyles legal arguments, which he addressed in a 12-page demand letter dated May 26. The 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 Joneses' 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.
Broyles argued that the weekly Bible study does not fit the legal description of a religious assembly, according to the county's own ordinance. The county code indicates that religious assemblies are typically considered churches, synagogues or mosques.
In addition, he said requiring the Joneses to seek a permit violates their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and peaceful assembly.
"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.
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.