Christian Family Sues Over Order to Stop Hosting Bible Studies, Church Retreats on Property

Fromm bible study
Chuck and Stephanie Fromm have been fined twice in the last few months for holding weekly Bible study meetings in their San Juan Capistrano, California home. City officials deny the citations are about religion, but are simply enforcing zoning code, September 2011. |

A Christian couple in Pennsylvania has filed a lawsuit after being ordered by government officials to stop using their private property to host Bible studies or other religious events.

Officials from Sewickley Heights Borough, near Pittsburgh, ordered Scott and Terri Fetterolf last year not to use their 35-acre property to host religious activities, according to the lawsuit filed this week in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

"The borough has no business overseeing a group of people reading and discussing a book together on private property — even if that book is the Bible," Randall Wenger, chief counsel for the Independence Law Center, which is representing the couple, said in a statement posted by Pennsylvania Family Institute on its website.

The couple were served a Notice of Violation/Cease and Desist Order last October and intimated that their activities could come under zoning restrictions such as those applicable to "places of worship," while parties, political fundraisers and other secular activities had not been banned.

Jeremy Samek, senior counsel for the law firm, said, "Government should not target religious activities for punishment, particularly when similar secular activities are permitted. In America, no government can categorically ban people from assembling to worship on one's own property."

Officials claim that the property's previous owner, Nancy Doyle Chalfant, who is one of the founders of the nonprofit Verland, "opened her home, and her beloved Dundee Farm, to church retreats, seminary picnics, youth groups and many other organizations she supported … for many decades," quoting from her 2012 obituary.

The Fetterolfs, who attended church with Chalfant, bought the property in 2003, "to carry on the traditions started by Chalfant," according to officials, the lawsuit states.

The couple first appealed to the borough's zoning hearing board, but the dispute remains unresolved.

"Sewickley Heights is threatening the Fetterolfs with fines of $500 per day, plus court costs including the Borough's attorney's fees, for having Bible studies at their home, having meetings where religious songs are sung, conducting any religious retreats for church leaders or seminary students for prayer or for camaraderie-building/fellowship time, and conducting any religious fundraisers," the lawsuit says.

The property is a working farm and hosting religious activities is not its "principal use," according to the lawsuit, Sewickley Herald reported.

"There is no compelling interest in prohibiting Bible studies, meetings where religious songs are sung, religious retreats/fellowship, and religious fundraisers, especially when secular counterparts of these activities are permitted," it says.

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