Banning Bible Study in Your Backyard
Oasis of Truth Church in Gilbert, Arizona, has seven adult members. It met on a rotating basis in the homes of its members for a few hours of church services and a weekly Bible study. The maximum number of people who ever attended Oasis’ meetings was 15; even then, only one car had to be parked in the street to accommodate the vehicles of the attendees.
As is painfully obvious from this description, the church’s meetings in homes were a threat to the community and had to be stopped. And stopped they were when, just a few months after it started meeting, a Gilbert zone enforcement officer issued a cease-and-desist order to Oasis. And why were the meetings stopped? Because they were too big? Meeting too often? Being too loud or attracting too much traffic? Generating irate community complaints?
Try none of the above. Rather, the church was targeted simply because it was a church. Nothing more. As the Town later acknowledged in an official zoning interpretation, it didn’t matter if the meeting in question was a one-time get-together of two people for a quiet prayer time. If the meeting was a church meeting, it was banned.
By contrast, other types of meetings—like Cub Scouts, business parties, or Monday Night Football gatherings—were all acceptable. In fact, some day cares are specifically allowed by the zoning code to be run from homes.
Such blatant discrimination against churches is unconstitutional. Targeting churches for disfavor simultaneously violates the Free Exercise Clause, since it unfairly limits religious liberty, and the Establishment Clause, since it prefers non-religious gatherings to religious ones.
Of course, municipalities can make some reasonable regulations on how homes are used, preventing your next door neighbor’s duplex from being turned into a shopping mall or a convention center. But such regulations are only legitimate as long as they are focused on concerns like traffic, parking, building code safety, and the like. Where the law instead singles out religious activities for discrimination, it leaves behind all pretense of legitimate regulation and becomes a tool to silence the church.
Fortunately, Gilbert is fixing the problem. It sent high-ranking officials to church services to apologize and is working with the church now to protect religious liberty. Hopefully, Gilbert’s approach to fixing the problem can be a model to other municipalities on how never to have a problem in the first place.