I count myself an atheistic agnostic, and yet I find this troubling. I find it troubling because, strangely and ironically, the more extreme Christians and the atheists can both be victims of middle-of-the-road values.
To quote the article:
MISSION VIEJO (CBS) — An Orange County couple has been ordered to stop holding a Bible study in their home on the grounds that the meeting violates a city ordinance as a “church” and not as a private gathering.
Homeowners Chuck and Stephanie Fromm, of San Juan Capistrano, were fined $300 earlier this month for holding what city officials called “a regular gathering of more than three people”.
That type of meeting would require a conditional use permit as defined by the city, according to Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), the couple’s legal representation.
I don't find this troubling at all. The issue here is that homeowners in a residential area are running a large organization out of their home when the law clearly states that such meetings in this area require a permit. As for the definition of "a regular gathering of more than 3 people" well that sounds like something the homeowners "claim" a city official said but the law doesn't state that and 50+ people meeting twice a week in a residential area is certainly not the same as having a few friends over for Sunday brunch or throwing a birthday party once a year. I'm sure the number of members in this organization has been (and will keep) growing if the neighbors don't say anything. If these were my neighbors, I would have issued a complaint as well, particularly if there are cars blocking streets as some articles on this subject claim has been an issue.
As for the definition of "a regular gathering of more than 3 people" well that sounds like something the homeowners "claim" a city official said...
The reporting is ambiguous here. CBS Los Angeles attributes the statement to city officials, but makes no mention of where, specifically, the statement came from, nor does it reference any by-law to that effect. This is part of why I don't like the news.
The by-law can be found here. It only seems to state that any of the following would require a conditional permit to operate in a residential zoning district:
"Includes churches, temples, synagogues, monasteries, religious retreats, and other places of religious worship and other fraternal and community service organizations"
From the same municipal code (here)
- Church: A structure that is used primarily for religious worship and related religious activities, and is constructed and permitted for assembly purposes as a primary use. See also Assembly building; Religious institution.
- Religious institution: Any building or structure, or group of buildings or structures, which are primarily used for the conducting of regular and organized religious services and church related activities, exclusive of educational institutions. See also Church.
Unfortunately other terms don't seem to all have definitions. 'Synagogue', 'temple', and 'monastery' would all fit under 'religious institutions', but 'other places of religious worship' is vague.
Just to add, the title of the "use" section in the Uses in Residential Districts table is "religious, fraternal, or nonprofit organizations" and the "description" section includes the things you mentioned.
If it does turn out to be 50+ people twice a week for bible study, I don't know how that could be considered anything other than an organization. There is a very thin line between organization and business, and laws like this are in place to keep residential areas, well, residential.
I agree. I just think that there was some poor wording on behalf of the municipality. Granted, it's difficult, if not impossible, to word laws to cover every possible scenario; however, I think there is a grey area in this wording as to what the nature of this gathering really is. It is being used like a church, but it isn't, by definition, a church or a religious institution. Again, I don't really know what 'other places of religious worship' specifically means.
I'm ambivalent at this point.
As a general rule, I hate these types of laws (as well as many of the stupid laws in homeowners associations) but regardless, "Religious, fraternal, or nonprofit organization" in a residential area which "Includes churches, temples, synagogues, monasteries, religious retreats, and other places of religious worship and other fraternal and community service organizations" seems pretty clear to me.
The city doesn't want people running organizations out of their homes without first having a public hearing in front of a zoning board to make sure there will be no negative impact on the land or neighborhood residents. Imagine if everyone in the neighborhood decided to have 50+ people over for bi-weekly meetings. I'm not saying I like it, I just "get it" and it doesn't have anything to do with religion like many articles are claiming to get people fired up. That's what bothers me about issues like this. If this couple had instead been issued a fine for holding large fraternal meetings in a residential area twice a week which neighbors claimed caused parking issues, would the news care? I doubt it.
That's not the point. The legislation says what is says and operates under the definitions it provides. There are limits to the liberties law enforcement and judiciaries should be able to make in its interpretation. Other wise, you are going to end up with the enforcement of laws that don't exist.
'Seems pretty clear to me' is not a good basis for legislation. The primary purpose of that building is its use as a residence. The bible study seems to be a private affair designed to fulfill the personal desires of the inhabitants. Does this bible study group have any formal organization structure? Is it an open community establishment/ event or a strictly private affair? Do they solicit funds for this endeavour? Do they operate in any official capacity? etc.
I agree that it's problematic to host 50 people at a time in most private residences in biweekly meetings, but the by-law in the citation does not specifically address that. If the size and frequency of the meetings themselves are the problem, regardless of their nature, then that is what the by-law should address.
"Hello. I'd like to be granted a permit for a flash mob."
It sounds like standard, run of the mill zoning laws that pretty much everyone everywhere has to obey. No one like bureaucracy when it comes down on their own head, but that's all it really is. 'Dictatorship' is hyperbolic at best.
Without further details, your concern appears unwarranted
Local governments have legitimate concerns over use of "family" dwellings.
I would guess that the city does not want to see any properties become sites of prostitution. Here in northern California, in the SF Bay Area, women and girls are "imported" from Asia, lured by offers of legitimate work in the US, only to spend time as slaves to prostitution rings.
Neither can someone set up a school or day care center in a private dwelling without being licensed. These seem to me to be cases of the separation of private residence from business/non-profit site. After all, if I can turn my home into a church or other NFP, I get supported by the state/county/city with tax breaks.
You do not say whether the property in question belongs to a "planned" community of some kind -- which would be governed by a set of rules (covenants) which can be stricter than city ordinances. These are common in CA and can include single family homes as well as the usual condominiums.
So...as Holmes would admonish, "Facts, Watson, facts! I cannot theorize without facts!"
Yeah, the city next to my college still had some anti-prostitution laws on the books which sometimes interfered with the student's rooming plans--no more than five women were allowed per household.
It seems to me, that unless someone has gone to the trouble of sending out Invitations with the expectation of an RSVP, they never know exactly how many people will show up.