Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Smart Growth and Zoning Laws--Changing the Way We Worship Part I

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." 1st Amendment to the Bill of Rights of the U.S.Constitution.

I am writing this post at the end of the third day of oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court about the constitutionality of ObamaCare.  Like many other Americans, I am deeply concerned that this ill-conceived bill strips us of our rights and freedoms and gives the Federal government unprecedented power over the lives of Americans.

As all of us keep our eyes fixed on the outcome of the court case,  we often overlook the fact that only in a few cases does Congress actually pass a law that tramples on our freedoms.  More often our liberties are being infringed on by local zoning boards and federal agencies that are out of control.  And since these infringements are local and smaller in nature, they often go largely unnoticed as they chip away at the very foundations of our liberty.

Last night I went to see the one night event for the documentary Monumental.  I highly recommend this Kirk Cameron Documentary about the search for America's greatest national treasure.  As I sat in the theater being reminded that many of our forefathers came to this country to find religious freedom and to be allowed to worship God according to their consciences, I was also reminded that the ability to worship in the manner we please is rapidly disappearing.

Since the first of the year, I have been doing a series on how UN Agenda 21 is remaking America through zoning ordinances calling for Smart Growth and Sustainability that will change every aspect of American life.  Since we are now nearing the end of Lent and we are one week away from both Easter Sunday and Passover, I am going to devote this week and next week's posts to examining the ways in which Smart Growth and Sustainability initiatives threaten our First Amendment rights to freedom of religion.

Few Americans seem to understand that while the Bill of Rights may guarantee the right to worship, the right to free speech and the right to freedom of assembly, local zoning boards all across the U.S. are taking those rights away.  Smart Growth threatens faith communities of all types and sizes from small to large, all across the country. 

Next week I am going to talk about this issue in terms of established congregations meeting in a building--a faith community or "church" or "synagogue".  But today I want to talk about the issue in a more informal sense--the home based Bible study or prayer group.

I was raised Baptist by parents who became part of the Jesus movement of the 1970's.  I spent my early life in either Baptist or non-denominational Charismatic churches.  Many of the latter started as a Bible Study in someone's home.  Some of these remained just as Bible studies and prayer groups but others actually grew into full-fledged churches.  The biggest non-denominational church in El Paso started this way--today they claim membership of over 6000 people.

Today many established Protestant churches still rely heavily on the home Bible Study model to allow members to have a place to meet during the week for fellowship, friendship and teaching.  And while I cannot speak for other Christian communities, as Evangelicals we are used to a lot of freedom.  We go to a given church as long as we like the pastor--when we stop liking him we go elsewhere.  Our surroundings don't really matter--as long as we have a Bible and a guitar we have church.

But for the last several years we are seeing our ability to meet together for friendship, Bible study and exhortation threatened all across the U.S. And new interpretations of zoning laws do not affect only Christians--any person of any faith can be impacted by a zoning board, and ultimately a court's ability to decide whether you have a right to meet together with other like-minded people for the purposes of religious expression. Look at these recent cases:

  1. November, 2009:  The seven member Oasis of Truth Church in Gilbert, Arizona received a cease and desist letter from the Gilbert, Arizona, zoning board compliance officer telling Pastor Joe Sutherland that based on Gilbert's Land Development Code the pastor may not hold religious meetings in his home, regardless of their size, nature or frequency.  The small church, which actually consisted of three married couples and their four children, rotated the meetings from member house to house.  The officer who issued the cease and desist letter did not receive a complaint about the meetings but rather found a sign announcing the meetings.  The Gilbert, Arizona, zoning board argued that its zoning code does not allow churches to host home meetings of any size including Bible studies, three person leadership meetings, or potluck dinners. The ordinance was written because of concerns with traffic, parking and building safety codes but does not apply to civic organizations including Cub Scouts or private parties in homes, or business functions regardless of size held in private homes.  The Alliance Defense Fund appealed Gilbert's decision on behalf of the church.  Meanwhile the church was forced to rent a room at a local school to meet for a few hours on Sunday. 
  2. September 22, 2011:  Stephanie and Chuck Fromm of San Juan Capistrano, California, received a fine of $300 and a threat of fines of $500 per day if they continue a home Bible study without a permit. The Fromms have lived in their home 18 years and regularly host 40 to 50 friends and family members from 10: AM to noon on Sundays for a Bible study.  There is no music at these meetings; the meetings are quiet and "contemplative."  Many of the couples attending the study carpool so there are many fewer cars than attendees.  According to the ABC News report, the Fromms have one next door neighbor and six acres of empty land on the other side of their house.  Most of the neighborhood is fine with their Bible Study, but one neighbor complained to the zoning department. The zoning ordinance requires that meetings of "religious fraternal or nonprofit organizations...require approval of a conditional use permit."  The Pacific Justice Institute--which last week won a case before the US Supreme Court regarding another California couples' battle with the EPA over property rights--agreed to take their case.
  3. March 23, 2011:  Isaac Feder and his wife Judith, Hasidic Jews living in Palm Beach, Florida, turned an extra condo they own in Century City Village condominium complex into a house of prayer. Neighbors in the primarily Jewish community complained that the Feder's constant praying and the coming and going were disruptive. The Feders visit Florida only in the winter--they argued that they use the extra condo for guests as well as for praying, but a Florida Judge did not agree.  The county zoning board ordered the prayers to stop on the grounds that the condo was actually a makeshift synagogue.  Local station WPBF summarized the county's argument, "You can pray in your home, but you can't buy a home just to pray in."  The Feders' case is a little unique because nearly all parties involved, both participants and complainants were Jewish so that the battle over whether they could pray in the extra condo was really an issue between Orthodox and Modern Judaism.  According to The Blaze, "Jewish residents at Century Village talk freely about their condo community being overrun by the more zealous members of their own religion whom they view as clannish and disrespectful of social norms--most notably turning community pools into ritual cleansing baths."  But the Feders' supporters argued that the meetings were quiet--they made no noise and that in order to pray they need a minyan which is 10 men.  Since the judge's ruling, the prayers have ceased.
In each of the above mentioned cases, the people involved assembled peacefully for the purposes of exercising their religion and in each case, that right was denied them.  As Smart Growth and Sustainability sweeps across the US changing zoning ordinances, we are going to see more and more that home religious services are not allowed and are not welcome.  This in turn will limit the options for worship available to people of faith.  The real question will then become, are we as a nation going to continue to sit back and allow our local zoning boards to take away our basic rights as U.S. citizens?

Next week:  Part II:  Dictating Our Houses of Worship

Alexandra Swann's new novel, The Planner, about an out of control, environmentally-driven government is available on Kindle and in paperback. She is also the author of No Regrets: How Homeschooling Earned me a Master's Degree at Age Sixteen. For more information, visit her website at Frontier 2000

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