Officials in San Juan, Calif., are set to decide within 30 days on the validity of a controversial city code by which a local Christian couple was fined $300 for hosting large Bible group meetings at home last year.
Chuck and Stephanie Fromm received a $100 fine initially when neighbors complained that the Bible gatherings at their home were too big, gathering close to 50 people. But the Fromms refused to pay the fine or heed the warnings. After a second big meeting, they were fined another $200.
The San Juan code states that all religious, fraternal or nonprofit organizations need to obtain a conditional use-permit for hosting meetings – and home Bible studies fall under that category.
The Fromms, however, challenged the fine, prompting an internal debate between a commission that voted to change the "archaic" and "confusing" law, the Orange County Register reported.
A number of months later, however, the city has still been unable to propose an amendment to the law, and is struggling to balance protecting residential freedoms, while at the same time ensuring that neighbors are not negatively affected by the noise or street space used by visitors to large home gatherings.
One proposal was simply to allow groups of 50 people or less to routinely meet once a week without the need of a conditional-use permit, but some argued that a group of 49 people, for example, would still be too much for some smaller neighborhoods.
"Is that number magical for us for any reason besides that it's stated in the building code?" asked Commissioner Sheldon Cohen. "I'm all for freedom of assembly, but I don't think that 50 is the right number."
"[Fining the Fromms for Bible studies] shouldn't happen," argued commissioner Ginny Kerr. "The city needs to be protected from legal [action] and residents need to be able to have [Bible studies] at home without a knock at the door."
Similar laws apply in the California cities of Dana Point, Costa Mesa, Irvine and Tustin.
Not everyone agrees that the fines imposed on Bible meetings were based purely on the city's restrictions on large group gatherings. Some have argued that the law challenges religious freedom by preventing fellowship between believers.
"Imposing a heavy-handed permit requirement on a home Bible study is outrageous," said Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, who is representing the couple.
"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," he added.
The San Juan couple has explained that the only thing they want is to be allowed to read their Bible at peace and share it with others in their home.
"We're just gathering and enjoying each other's company and fellowship. And we enjoy studying God's word," said Stephanie Fromm.