A San Diego pastor and his wife claim
they were interrogated by a county official and warned they will face
escalating fines if they continue to hold Bible studies in their home.
The couple, whose names are being
withheld until a demand letter can be filed on their behalf, told their
attorney a county government employee knocked on their door on Good
Friday, asking a litany of questions about their Tuesday night Bible
studies, which are attended by approximately 15 people.
"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."
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Dean Broyles of the Western Center for
Law & Policy, which has been retained to represent the couple, told WND
the county's action not only violates religious land-use laws but also
assaults both the First Amendment's freedom of assembly and freedom of
"The First Amendment, in part, reads,
'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof,'" Broyles said. "And that's the
key part: 'prohibiting the free exercise.' We believe this is a
substantial government burden on the free exercise of religion."
He continued, "If one's home is one's
castle, certainly you would the think the free exercise of religion, of
all places, could occur in the home."
Broyles confirmed the county official
followed through on his threat. The pastor and his wife received a
written warning ordering the couple to "cease/stop religious assembly on
parcel or obtain a major use permit."
"The Western Center for Law and Policy
is troubled by this draconian move to suppress home Bible studies," said
the law center in a statement. "If the current trends in our nation
continue, churches may be forced underground. If that happens, believers
will once again be forced to meet in homes. If homes are already closed
by the government to assembly and worship, where then will Christians
On a personal note, Broyles added,
"I've been leading Bible studies in my home for 13 years in San Diego
County, and I personally believe that home fellowship Bible studies are
the past and future of the church. … If you look at China, the church
grew from home Bible studies. I'm deeply concerned that if in the U.S.
we are not able to meet in our homes and freely practice our religion,
then we may be worse off than China."
Broyles also explained to WND that
oppressive governments, such as communist China or Nazi Germany, worked
to repress home fellowships, labeling them the "underground church" or
"subversive groups," legally compelling Christians to meet only in
sanctioned, government-controlled "official" churches.
"Therein lies my concern," Broyles
said. "If people can't practice their religious beliefs in the privacy
of their own homes with a few of their friends, that's an egregious
First Amendment violation."
WND contacted a spokeswoman for San
Diego County, who acknowledged the description of the incident seemed
"bizarre," but who was unable to locate the details of the account. She
simply could not provide comment yet, she said, until she could become
familiar with the case.
Broyles said the WCLP is nearly ready
to file a demand letter with the county to release the pastor and his
wife from the requirement to obtain the expensive permit. If the county
refuses, Broyles said, the WCLP will consider a lawsuit in federal
Broyles also told WND the pastor and
his wife are continuing to hold the Bible study in their home.