(Photo: Nicole Fromm)
SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. – An Orange County couple that was fined twice in the last few months for holding weekly Bible study meetings in their home insists that city officials are not simply enforcing zoning code, but targeting Christian gatherings.
Chuck Fromm told The Christian Post that even though he and his wife, Stephanie, have been hosting Bible studies of varying sizes in the same San Juan Capistrano home located in a spacious neighborhood for the last 18 years, the city acted on one neighbor’s complaints.
The Fromms 4,700-square-foot home is situated on more than an acre of land with one side of the street not having any houses and ample parking. The couple hosts two Bible studies per week, one with about a dozen people and the other with approximately 50, Fromm said.
The San Juan Capistrano city manager denies that the citations were issued because the meetings were Bible studies, and told CP that the citations were issued because the couple was having regular gatherings of 50 or more people. The Fromms have paid $100 and $200 fines for the citations and have been told they will be fined an additional $500 if they continue to hold the gatherings.
The citations, posted on Fromms website, do not include any references to an illegal amount of house guests. The Fromms are appealing the citations at a hearing before the Orange County Superior Court in a trial yet to be scheduled. They are also continuing to hold the Bible studies.
“You have a municipal bureaucracy that writes a real bad citation with bad law and then they seek to rationalize their actions,” said Fromm, who is publisher of Worship Leader Magazine. “It’s flat-out persecution. This kind of prosecution is just persecution.”
The couple’s lawyer, Brad Dacus, who is the president of Pacific Justice Institute, also said city officials are targeting the meeting because of its Christian nature.
“The city of San Juan Capistrano has coldly and calculatedly had their sight aimed at this Bible study and has demonstrated no reluctance from pulling the trigger,” Dacus said. “This kind of abuse of government authority we have seen in communist China and the Islamic Republic of Iran. It has no place in local government and no place in the United States.”
In a statement given to CP, City Manager Catherine Salcedo said, “Notwithstanding what various media outlets are reporting, the City of San Juan Capistrano does not prohibit home Bible studies. The Municipal Code is online and you won’t find any such prohibition.
“The issue with the Fromm case involves the question of when a property developed for residential use has been transformed into a place of public assembly,” she said.
Salcedo also referenced additions to the zoning laws that referred to “the gathering together of 50 or more persons for such purposes as meetings, conferences, education, training, worship, or other similar purposes.”
She added, “Thus, the issue comes down to when meetings of up to 50 people held on a regular basis commence to erode the policy of preserving the spacious, low-density residential character of the property and neighborhood.”
However, Dacus said the zoning ordinances are so broad that city officials can choose to issue a citation based on a complaint for any type or size of weekly gatherings, even a card game involving just four people.
“This is a city manager who has only been on the job for a few months and apparently doesn’t appreciate the established historical institution of Bible studies in people’s homes,” Dacus said. “She has exhibited very little respect for the rights of individuals to gather and pray or read the Bible in their homes.
“The city has made absolutely no efforts to rein her in from this bureaucratic posse that she is leading against this home Bible study,” he continued. “The city manager is very resolute to fine this Bible study and to force them to bow their knees to the city with both money as well as time, as they wait to find out if the city is going to recognize their right to meet.”