The San Diego County has backed down from shutting down a home Bible study after receiving a flood of complaints from people concerned that the county is attempting to "muzzle religious expression."
"No one respects the right to free religious expression more than I do, and no one would find the infringement of such rights more abhorrent," said county Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard said in a statement Friday.
Ekard said dozens of e-mail and calls have come in to his office as media reports revealed that a county employee told a local couple they could not hold their weekly Bible study without a permit.
The employee labeled their Bible study a "religious assembly."
In a warning letter, Pastor David Jones and his wife, Mary, were ordered to "cease/stop religious assembly on parcel or obtain major use permit."
The Joneses, along with dozens of others, argue that their right to hold Bible studies is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
While many saw the county's attempt as an infringement upon their right to assemble peaceably and privately in their home, CAO Ekard stressed that the county "has never tried to stifle religious expression and never will."
"This is a land issue," Ekard stated, and not an issue of religious expression.
"I deeply regret that a routine code enforcement issue has transformed into a debate over religious freedom in San Diego County," he said.
The county had received complaints from a neighbor about traffic and parking issues resulting from the weekly Bible studies, Ekard noted.
Pastor Jones believes the complaint was prompted when a Bible study member hit the car belonging to a neighbor's visitor. Jones paid for the car damage.
Dean Broyles, president of the Western Center for Law and Policy, based in Escondido, Calif., which is representing the Joneses, believes the county's insistence that this is a parking issue is fabricated.
"Broyles told the Union-Tribune that the officer had asked the couple such questions as "Do you sing?" and "Do you say 'praise the Lord?'"
Ekard is reviewing the officer's actions and re-examining the policies and procedures the county uses "to deal with such complaints."
If the officer is found to have acted inappropriately, Ekard said he will take action immediately.
"[L]et me be clear: religious intolerance in any form is not, and never will be, allowed under any circumstance in San Diego County government," Ekard underscored.
Until the county finds a solution to the matter, the Joneses will be allowed to continue their Bible studies.