A California couple has been fined by the city of San Juan Capistrano for holding Bible studies and religious gatherings in their home, which has some wondering about the future of religious freedom in America.
Chuck and Stephanie Fromm, residents of San Juan Capistrano, home to the oldest church in California, were fined $300 for the religious activities, which the city said violated a municipal code that prohibits "religious, fraternal or non-profit" organizations in residential neighborhoods without a conditional-use permit," the Capistrano Dispatch reported.
Chuck Fromm is publisher of Worship Leader Magazine, a Christian music resource that combines biblical wisdom and best practices for worship, and provides added educational and congregational resources through its associated educational services, according to its website. However, the Fromms insist that their weekly meetings are not affiliated with a church, nor are they seeking to establish a church.
"How dare they tell us we can't have whatever we want in our home," Stephanie Fromm said. "We want to be able to use our home. We’ve paid a lot and invested a lot in our home and backyard … I should be able to be hospitable in my home."
The municipal code is "reactive," which means it is only enforced if someone complains.
Fromm admitted that at least one person had voiced concern about the activities.
"Can you imagine anybody in any neighborhood, that one person can call and make it a living hell for someone else?" Mrs. Fromm said. "That’s wrong … and it's just sad."
According to the Pacific Justice Institute, a non-profit legal group that is working on behalf of the Fromms, there was no noise beyond normal conversation and quiet music on the home stereo system. The group members met inside the family room and patio area of the 4,700-square-foot home.
"Imposing a heavy-handed permit requirement on a home Bible study is outrageous," said Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, in a statement.
"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 city officials could not be reached for comment.