Ariz. Town Officials OK Home Bible Studies

The Gilbert, Ariz., town council agreed on Monday to amend an ordinance that banned one small church from meeting in homes.

"I'm not willing to regulate what goes on in peoples' homes," Councilmember Jenn Daniels said, according to The Arizona Republic.

The council held a special meeting to discuss changes to the Land Development Code which currently prohibits the use of single family residential structures for religious assemblies.

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It was convened after a relatively new church of seven members was ordered to stop holding Bible studies and worship services in the home of Pastor Joe Sutherland. The cease-and-desist order gained the national spotlight after attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund filed an appeal last week on behalf of Oasis of Truth Church.

Council members, however, said they were not aware of the order against Oasis of Truth when it was issued by a zoning administrator. Once they found out, they decided to make changes to the zoning code.

Expressing commitment to religious freedom, Gilbert Mayor John Lewis said, "It is unfortunate that the Council did not know about information given to the Oasis of Truth Church. Gilbert is known as a family-oriented community and our faith groups are a vital part of our Town. We want to keep it that way."

Lewis attended the Sunday worship services of Oasis of Truth Church earlier this month and listened to the church members' suggestions regarding zoning changes. The church is currently renting space at a local school.

Some of the proposed changes presented Monday included changing the definition of religious assembly or regulating all gatherings in homes, such as Super Bowl parties.

Councilmember Steve Urie suggested "simply saying assemblies are permitted in single family residences provided there isn't a problem with parking, traffic or other public safety issues," as reported by KTVK 3TV.

ADF Senior Legal Counsel Douglas Napier told the local TV news station that they are simply seeking protection of religious freedoms.

As the town council moves forward on an amendment, which will likely not take effect until June, enforcement of the current code has been suspended.

Mayor Lewis assured Gilbert residents, "Our vibrancy is enhanced with our strong faith-based groups. Our partnership with our local ministers and pastors is excellent. Gilbert is considered a religious friendly area. Religious activities occur all over Town and most especially in our homes. The Town Council and our citizens will keep it that way."

Oasis of Truth Church was launched in 2009 and consists of only seven adult members and four children. They were meeting in different houses on a rotating basis three times per week for fellowship, biblical and moral instruction and worship. No complaints had been made from neighbors about the church meetings.

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