City officials ordered a small home Bible study group in Southern California to either stop meeting or obtain a permit.
The home Bible group in Rancho Cucamonga must have a Conditional Use Permit by Good Friday, April 2, in order to continue gathering. The Bible study group was referred to as a "church" in a letter sent by the city. All churches are required to obtain a CUP in residential areas, it stated.
City officials explained on Tuesday that a neighbor had filed a complaint in February that some 40 to 60 people were gathering each week at the home.
But Pacific Justice Institute, the legal representative of the Bible study group, disputed that figure and said only an average of 15 people attend the Friday Bible study.
The non-profit legal group also said the Bible group is affiliated with Shiloh Tabernacle, which rents out a community center for its Sunday services. It contends that the Friday night Bible study is no different than other small gatherings, such as birthday parties and book clubs. These other small gatherings do not need the costly permit, the legal group points out, so the Bible group should also not be required to have the permit.
In defense, Kurt J. Keating, code enforcement supervisor for the city, said officials had reason to think the meetings were church services.
"There's also some supporting facts that they are advertising themselves as a church over the public domain, such as the Internet," Keating said.
Though the city does not put restrictions on home Bible studies, the code enforcement officer said, the group cannot hold church services in a residential area without a permit.
The city's director of building and safety, Trang Huynh, said that no one in the Bible study group clarified to city officials that they were not holding church services.
"This (PJI's press release) is the first we heard about a Bible study," Huynh said, according to the San Bernardino County Sun. "Unfortunately, they didn't talk to us."
The case of the Bible study group affiliated with Shiloh Tabernacle is the second instance within six months where the city has ordered a Christian gathering at a home to either shut down or get a church permit. In the previous case, the city eventually allowed Joe and Diana Johnson to continue holding their weekly Bible study meeting without a permit.
PJI President Brad Dacus said they will give the city a chance to rescind its letter without litigation. But he noted that the group is "fully prepared to take this as far as is necessary to defend this Bible study group – and countless others like it."