What's (really) wrong here?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The following headline appeared this morning at The Drudge Report: "City Orders Couple To Stop Home Bible Study..." Although I am an atheist, I advocate individual rights, and oppose efforts by the government to prevent the free exercise of the rights to both speech (which includes religious speech) and property (which includes using one's home as a church). If a couple wants to hold regular meetings at its house, and does not interfere with the rights of others in the process, these meetings are nobody's business but their own.

This story will doubtless raise the hackles of many people, but I think it does so for the wrong reasons. The emphasis of Matt Drudge's headline, as well as a statement on the web site of the Pacific Justice Institute, which is taking legal action on behalf of the couple, make the case sound tantamount to religious persecution. Property rights (for everyone), the real issue, sound like an afterthought.

The PJI statement makes a perfunctory reference to a legitimate issue the meetings could be raising: whether having fifty people meet each week in a residential neighborhood might interfere with the property rights of the couple's neighbors.

There was no noise beyond normal conversation and quiet music on the home stereo system. They met inside their family room and patio area. Many neighbors have written letters of support, denying they were disturbed by the presence of the Bible study.
So far, so good, but omitted are some issues that the news story brings up:
"The Fromm case further involves regular meetings on Sunday mornings and Thursday afternoons with up to 50 people, with impacts on the residential neighborhood on street access and parking,: City Attorney Omar Sandoval said. [bold added]
This is a legitimate concern. Unfortunately, the city government seems ill-equipped to deal with it properly. Instead of, say, stepping in to enforce something like a restrictive covenant or pursue the parking problem (if there is one) through nuisance law, it is resorting to illegitimate zoning laws:
An Orange County couple has been ordered to stop holding a Bible study in their home on the grounds that the meeting violates a city ordinance as a "church" and not as a private gathering.

Homeowners Chuck and Stephanie Fromm, of San Juan Capistrano, were fined $300 earlier this month for holding what city officials called "a regular gathering of more than three people".

That type of meeting would require a conditional use permit as defined by the city, according to Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), the couple's legal representation.
Running a church does not, in and of itself, violate anyone's individual rights, and thus the government has no business telling people whether they can do so.  It is unclear to me that PJI sees the issue this way, which is ironic, since the best way to protect religious freedom would, in fact, be to do whatever best promotes government protection of property rights for everyone.

The problem isn't just that the law is preventing a homeowner from religious activity in his own home. The problem is that the government is telling us how we can use our own homes at all, regardless of how that use might affect others.

-- CAV

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