GILBERT, Ariz. — Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed an appeal Wednesday with the town of Gilbert’s zoning Board of Adjustment to overturn a decision banning churches from meeting, holding Bible studies, or having any other activities in private homes. The pastor of the seven-member Oasis of Truth Church received a cease-and-desist letter ordering him to terminate all religious meetings in his home, regardless of their size, nature, or frequency.
“Christian church groups shouldn’t be singled out for discrimination and banned from meeting in their own homes,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Daniel Blomberg. “The interpretation and enforcement of the town’s code is clearly unconstitutional. It bans 200,000 Gilbert residents from meeting in their private homes for organized religious purposes—an activity encouraged in the Bible, practiced for thousands of years, and protected by the First Amendment.”
In November 2009, Oasis of Truth Church was ordered in a letter from a Gilbert code compliance officer to stop church meetings in Pastor Joe Sutherland’s home, based on the town’s Land Development Code. The officer was not responding to a complaint, but to signs he came across near Sutherland’s home about the meetings.
The town contends that, under its zoning code, churches within its borders cannot have any home meetings of any size, including Bible studies, three-person church leadership meetings, and potluck dinners. This ban is defended based upon traffic, parking, and building safety concerns. However, nothing in its zoning code prevents weekly Cub Scouts meetings, Monday Night Football parties with numerous attendees, or large business parties from being held on a regular basis in private homes. In fact, the zoning code explicitly allows some day cares to operate from homes.
Notably, the church only met for a few hours a week in members’ homes, and would rotate to different homes weekly. Further, the church was quite small, consisting of just seven adult members, including three married couples, and their four children.
ADF attorneys argue in their appeal that 1) the town’s zoning code does not authorize such a broad ban on church meetings in homes; 2) the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause doesn’t permit a ban on church meetings where all other meetings are permitted; 3) Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act (FERA) protects “Arizona citizens’ right to exercise their religious beliefs free from undue government interference;” and 4) the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) prevents zoning officials from singling out churches for discriminatory treatment. Blomberg adds that “the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause prevents the town from stopping the church from holding its meetings on the public sidewalk outside the pastor’s home, yet the town won’t allow him to hold the same meetings just a few feet away in the privacy of his own living room.”
Sutherland stopped the home meetings in December and requested a clarification of the restrictions from the town zoning administrator the next month. The initial informal response was followed in February by a zoning interpretation letter–offered at a $305 fee–confirming the alleged basis of the ban. The church currently holds its Sunday meetings at a local school, where it can only meet for one weekly service due to rental costs.
ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.
Courtesy of adfmedia.org