A California pastor and his wife were visited on Good Friday by a local official who said they were breaking the law by holding a small weekly Bible study in their home.
Government official tries to shut down home Bible study
A Fox News interview with the Pastor, his wife and their lawyer.
The San Diego official asked the couple: “Do you have a regular meeting in your home?”; “Do you say amen?”; “Do you pray?”; “Do you say praise the Lord?”.
When Pastor David Jones and his wife Mary replied “yes” to these questions, the official told them their meeting was violating county regulations.
A few days later the couple received a written warning accusing them of “unlawful use of land”. It said they could either “stop religious assembly or apply for a major use permit”.
Obtaining such a permit would cost thousands of dollars. Pastor Jones has one for his church building, about three miles away from the couple’s home.
But the couple say their regular Bible study meeting simply consists of around 15 friends gathered in their house for a meal, discussion and prayer.
“Are you telling me I live in an America where I can’t pray with my friends? I would say your authority stops at my door,” Pastor Jones said.
He continued, “This is America, this is supposed to be freedom. I should be able to pray here whenever I want to, 7 nights a week.”
The San Diego authorities have defended their intervention, claiming that the group’s meeting was creating problems for neighbours and adding that people often ‘take it personally’ when presented with such warnings.
But Pastor Jones says his neighbours are supportive, and that the authorities’ letters consistently cited “religious assembly” rather than parking or traffic issues.
The couple have been told they will face successive fines and ultimately court action if they fail to comply.
The couple’s attorney, David Broyles, said “The government may not prohibit the free exercise of religion” and warned that the authorities’ actions were in danger of having a ‘chilling effect’ on other Christian groups.
He asked: “Is this county really going to treat a religious gathering any differently than a boyscout troop or a tupperware party?”
Mrs Jones added: “The implications are great because it’s not only us that’s involved.
“There are thousands and thousands of Bible studies that are held all across the country. What we’re interested in is setting a precedent here — before it goes any further — and that we have it settled for the future.”
In the UK similar stories of Christians facing censure and heavy-handed treatment by local authorities have prompted concerns about the erosion of civil liberties.
Discrimination law expert Neil Addison warned recently that attacks on religious freedom are symptomatic of this wider erosion.
Speaking at the London Oratory Mr Addison said: “We are in a society which is increasingly intolerant, repressive, regulated and untrusting and, in consequence, we have officials who are dictatorial, interfering and untrustworthy.”
He added: “It is no coincidence that the first thing any totalitarian state does is to regulate and control association, organisations and churches.
“We need to be alert to this danger, and we need to defend the rights of churches and other organisations, not simply in order to defend religious freedom but in order to preserve freedom itself.”