Bible studies are a common feature of Christian life. They supplement what is learned each week in church and facilitate closer communal bonds. And they typically meet in a member’s home. A Bible study is an informal gathering, like a book club or a weekly poker game. It’s not the kind of thing that would need government approval.
At least, you wouldn’t think so.
But a San Diego County code enforcement officer would disagree. On Good Friday he visited a Bonita home where 15-20 people attend a Bible study each week hosted by David Jones, a pastor. WorldNetDaily reported:
“Do you have a regular weekly meeting in your home? Do you sing? Do you say ‘amen’?” the official reportedly asked. “Do you say, ‘Praise the Lord’?”
The pastor’s wife answered yes.
She says she was then told, however, that she must stop holding “religious assemblies” until she and her husband obtain a Major Use Permit from the county, a permit that often involves traffic and environmental studies, compliance with parking and sidewalk regulations and costs that top tens of thousands of dollars.
And if they fail to pay for the MUP, the county official reportedly warned, the couple will be charged escalating fines beginning at $100, then $200, $500, $1000, “and then it will get ugly.”
Geez, I wonder what this guy would think of the House Church movement.
The Bible study story, which got picked up by CNN, led to international outrage. Damage control from county officials followed. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported Saturday that the county wouldn’t force the Bible study to obtain a permit:
“No one respects the right to free religious expression more than I do, and no one would find the infringement of such rights more abhorrent,” county Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard said in a statement.
Chandra Wallar, the county’s general manager of land use and environment, said the county has re-examined the situation and decided that the Joneses don’t need a permit after all.
Religious assembly, under the county land-use code, is defined as “religious services involving public assembly such as customarily occurs in synagogues, temples, and churches.”
Wallar said that definition, which doesn’t spell out specific thresholds on when a religious gathering becomes a religious assembly, probably needs to be clarified and that more training may be warranted for code enforcement officers.
She said the county was not targeting the Joneses because they were exercising their religion, but rather it was trying to address parking and traffic issues.
“We’ve advised the pastor he has the authority to continue to hold his meetings just as he’s held them,” Wallar said. “My hope is we will be able to resolve the traffic concerns.”