If I were to tell you about a city where it’s illegal to hold a Bible study in your home without official permission, you’d think I was talking about a city in China or Saudi Arabia.
Well, you would be wrong. I’m talking about California. You might think, “That can’t be constitutional.” But you would be wrong again.
Every Wednesday and Sunday, between 20 and 50 people gather at the home of Stephanie and Chuck Fromm for Bible studies. While that sounds like a lot of people, the Fromms have a lot of home: the property includes a “corral, barn, pool and huge back lawn,” typical of their “semi-rural” neighborhood.
Unfortunately for the Fromms, their home came with a neighbor who, by her own admission, “has never gotten along with the Fromms.” So she filed a complaint against the Fromms.
That’s when the Fromms learned that their Bible studies violated local ordinances. Not because they were too noisy: There’s no singing or music at the gatherings. Not because of any parking problems: Chuck Fromm makes sure that his guests are not obstructing his neighbors in any way.
No, they violate the law because local ordinances require a “conditional use permit” for meetings of “religious, fraternal or non-profit” organizations in residential neighborhoods. The ordinance doesn’t specify how many people need to gather to run afoul of the law: Three Freemasons could meet over coffee in one of their homes to discuss Lodge business and be in violation of the law.
The Fromms are challenging the law in Court. Stephanie Fromm says, “we should be able to be hospitable in my home.” It sounds reasonable. And as Chuck Fromm says, the issue goes beyond Bible studies.
Right, and that’s the problem: Given the current state of church-state jurisprudence, the San Juan Capistrano ordinance just might pass constitutional muster.
That’s because the Supreme Court has ruled that laws like this don’t violate the First Amendment even if they prevent people from practicing their religion, so long as they apply to everyone equally. In Employment Division v. Smith, written by Justice Scalia, of all men, the Supreme Court dubbed laws like this “neutral laws of general applicability.” So if the law doesn’t target a particular religious practice, it’s permissible.
The Court said that while states and municipalities were free to create religiously based exceptions, the Constitution doesn’t require them. What the Court didn’t say is what happens when states and municipalities refuse to be reasonable. And my experiences taught me that government officials can be very unreasonable at times.
That’s why a coalition of liberals and conservatives tried to get Smith reversed through the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Religious freedom is too important to our way of life to be left to the whim of local government and unfriendly neighbors. Sadly, in a blatant display of turf protection, the Court struck this legislation down. So later Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). But protection of religious freedom is much narrower in this bill and may not apply in cases like the Fromm’s - which leaves them at the mercy of public officials.
Hopefully, the bad publicity will cause officials in San Juan Capistrano to back down. While that would be great for the Fromms, we would still be in a situation where holding a Bible study might require a permission slip from Caesar.
Take note: check your local ordinances - you may need to change them.