The city of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., has resorted to fining a family for holding Bible studies in their home as a violation of zoning codes.
Sure, Chuck and Stephanie Fromm technically don’t follow the city’s proper permit channels by not gaining a conditional use permit to host a home Bible study. But neither does hardly anyone in the city, since the city code requires a permit for any nonprofit or fraternal group expecting three or more people gathering in a residential situation. That happens just about every weekend all across the city, from friends getting together for barbecues to weekend football-viewing parties to, well, the Fromms’ Bible study. But the Fromms now have a pair of $300 fines to show for their effort.
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The Fromms host a Thursday and Sunday Bible study that draws as many as 50 people and were “shocked” when the city fined them for their quiet, peaceful gatherings because of the permit issue. In the wealthy community, home lots are sizable and spread out. In fact, six acres of open land separate the Fromm home from its nearest neighbor on one side of the house. And even still, the Fromms hold the gatherings in the community’s 100-seat common clubhouse, which has its own parking lot. Chuck says one neighbor complained and set off the entire situation.
Now the Pacific Justice Institute has appealed to the city on the Fromms’ behalf, looking to get both the couple’s money back and an apology, calling the city’s move — and subsequent threat of future $500 fines if the Bible studies continue — “totalitarian” and a “clear breach of fundamental civil liberties.”
The city attorney has said the city has nothing against Bible studies, but rather raised concerns about street access and parking.
In 2009, a San Diego County couple was warned about their home Bible study, but the county pulled back that warning. In November of the same year in Gilbert, Ariz., the city council revised its code to allow a home church that had also been warned to stop meeting.
For now, the Fromms will appeal the ruling and continue to hold the meetings, with Chuck saying, “They said they’re going to cite us $500 for every meeting. Okay, cite us.”
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Tim Newcomb is a contributor for TIME. Find him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.