Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bible Study "Zoned" Out Of Private Homes


This might have been missed except for The Oasis of Truth church, and Pastor Joe Sutherland. Pastor Joe Sutherland and his tiny church of just 7 members had been rotating homes for fellowship since November of last year. "There was no disturbance, no neighbors ever complained," says Doug Napier of Alliance Defense Fund. However, despite all of that A Gilbert, Arizona code compliance officer, hit the church with a violation notice after seeing a sign near a road advertising a Sunday service.

A zoning administrator told the church that Bible studies, church leadership meetings, and fellowship activities, are not permitted in private homes. Further, he was told that even as few as three people are not allowed to visit his home, if they intend to discuss any kind of church business. Alliance Defense Fund attorneys, filed an appeal last Wednesday, with the town of Gilbert’s zoning Board of Adjustment, in an effort to over turn the decision.

The town defends it's position, citing traffic, parking, and building safety concerns. Building safety concerns, are you kidding me? I don't know about you, but, I don't even want to think about living in a home, that isn't safe to invite 3 more people to walk into. That's a scary idea all by itself. Makes you wonder what their building codes look like.

There is nothing in Gilbert's zoning code, that prevents weekly Cub Scouts meetings, Monday Night Football parties, or large business parties from being held regularly in private homes. In fact, the zoning code actually allows some day cares to operate from private homes. I won't come right out, and call this what I think it is because, I'm a lady. But, the last time I saw anything like this, it was comin' out of the business end of a bull.

To her credit, Vice Mayor Linda Abbott told reporters that she does not support the code, and did not know that it even existed. I wonder how such a thing ever got on the books in the first place? In their response to the appeal, Gilbert town council members reportedly "expressed overwhelming support to expedite changes in the code at a future meeting." The next meeting is scheduled for March 23, 2010. Vice Mayor Abbott also told reporters, "she feels strongly that the council will vote to repeal the code."

I hope so, since it seems that there are a number of laws that conflict with the current zoning. ADF attorneys argue in their appeal, that 1) the town’s zoning code does not authorize such a broad ban on church meetings in homes; 2) the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause doesn’t permit a ban on church meetings where all other meetings are permitted; 3) Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act (FERA) protects “Arizona citizens’ right to exercise their religious beliefs free from undue government interference;” and 4) the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) prevents zoning officials from singling out churches for discriminatory treatment. Blomberg adds that “the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause prevents the town from stopping the church from holding its meetings on the public sidewalk outside the pastor’s home, yet the town won’t allow him to hold the same meetings just a few feet away in the privacy of his own living room.”

While the small church waits for something to change, they meet just once a week in a local school, where they rent space.

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