Sept. 22, 2011 -- A California family has been fined for holding weekly Bible studies in their home, meetings that are allegedly in violation of the city's zoning regulations.
Stephanie and Chuck Fromm have been living in their San Juan Capistrano home for 18 years and were shocked when they received a notice of violation from the city. They have already been fined $300 and have been told they will be fined an additional $500 per meeting if they continue to meet without a Conditional Use Permit.
But they're not backing down.
"Nobody should be able to tell us what we can do in our home," Stephanie Fromm said. "Since when do we have to qualify who we have at our house and what we're doing?"
The Fromms regularly host 40 to 50 friends and family members at their home from 10 a.m. to noon on Sundays for Bible studies. They don't think noise or traffic issues are to blame for the citation. There is no music, and the meetings, they say, are largely "contemplative."
Many who attend the Bible study drive to the house together, so there are many fewer cars than people, the Fromms say. They only have one next-door neighbor, and the space on the other side of their house is more than six acres of empty land.
They say one disgruntled neighbor has set off the entire situation, while the rest of the neighborhood has no problem with the meetings and are supportive of the family.
"We have a neighbor that's cross at us and contacted the zoning department," Chuck Fromm said. "It feels sort of like a snitch system. There's no due process. It's arbitrary. We're reasonable, rational people but we don't have a reasonable, rational system."
An attorney from the Pacific Justice Institute, a national organization that provides volunteer attorneys in battles to defend religious freedom, is representing the Fromms.
"It's a huge abridgement to personal freedom, to privacy and to religious liberty," said Brad Dacus, the couple's attorney. "An individual's home is probably the most revered in terms of an individual's right to gather, to pray and to exercise their religion, particularly with their friends and family."
Millions of Americans regularly gather at Bible studies, a tradition dating far back into American history, Dacus pointed out.
"If this Bible study is not allowed—if they're not allowed to exercise their rights under the First Amendment—then the floodgates will be open wide for every Bible study in the country to potentially be on the chopping block by their local government," Dacus said.
The ordinance in question identified "religious, fraternal, or nonprofit organizations as uses which require approval of a conditional use permit," said Dacus. This would include organizations like the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, continued Dacus, adding that the vagueness of the word "fraternal" could even include groups who meet weekly to watch Sunday Night Football.
"It's an overabuse of authority and discretion for any local government to say a family like the Fromms must pay money to the city and get their prior consent to engage in such a fundamentally traditional use of their own home," Dacus said.
The San Juan Capistrano City Attorney's Office did not respond to requests for comment.
But, for now, Chuck Fromm is clear about his plan: "We'll meet and they can charge us." Both he and Dacus say they are willing to do whatever it takes to fight this problem.
"The Pacific Justice Institute is committed to taking this all the way to the Supreme Court, if need be, not just for the Fromms, but for every other family in the United States looking to exercise the same freedom," Dacus said.
And Stephanie Fromm, who her husband describes as "a real host with the most," said she just wants to host her loved ones for Bible studies in her home without worrying about being fined or interrogated.
"We're not pot-stirrers. We are surprised and sad," she said. "It just doesn't make our city look like the community that we came into to raise our children. We love our community. We will stand up for our faith and for the use of our home."