Then Chuck and Stephanie Fromm began having people over for Bible studies, the last thing on their minds was the possibility of being cited and fined by the city they lived in, but that’s exactly what happened. As residents of San Juan Capistrano, California, they are hardly new in town. They moved into the city 18 years ago because they saw it as a good place to raise their five children. While the town of Capistrano itself is barely older, officially being about 50, it grew around the 235-year-old Mission San Juan Capistrano, the irony of which is not lost on many folk who are aghast that the city has a problem with the Fromms’ Bible study groups.
The neighborhood is home to 52 large houses (the Fromms’ own house is 4,700 square feet on 1.5 acres). Of the 52 neighbors, there was one complaint that triggered Capistrano’s reactive—meaning that the officers respond only in the case of a complaint—code-enforcement department. “Can you imagine there being anybody in a neighborhood that one person can call and make it a living hell for someone else? That’s wrong . . . and it’s just sad,” said Stephanie Fromm.1 This admittedly is a disturbing thought, but not nearly as disturbing as the fact that one single neighbor complaining about something you are doing in the privacy of your own home can bring the government banging on your front door with a cease-and-desist order.
In this case the complaint revolved around the Fromms’ home Bible studies, which have been happening since 1994 in one form or another. In 2006 after a cancer diagnosis Stephanie started a small midweek group study based on the teachings of Beth Moore, a popular Christian women’s ministries speaker/writer. This group consists of five or six women. The Fromms also host another midweek Bible study that gathers between 10 and 15 people. A larger group of anywhere from 20 to 50 family and friends meets on Sundays.
The Sunday group originally met at the community center/clubhouse, but had to stop because of “interpretation of some guideline rules stating ‘not intended for regularly scheduled meetings’, which is keeping some homeowners from using their own facility, which was built to accommodate larger gatherings, functioning as an extension to a homeowner’s living room,” says Stephanie.2 “A handful of homeowners in our neighborhood do not want any religious activities in our neighborhood and are badgering our volunteer homeowners’ board.”
“We moved the Bible study to our home after an impasse. We’re trying to be accommodating,” she says, but “we’d like to use the facilities that we pay monthly dues for.”
About three months after the Thursday evening meeting began in January 2011, the Fromms received their first notice of a violation. They were ordered to: “(1) apply for Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to hold meetings for your organization in a residential area or (2) cease use of a residence for regular meetings.”3 They paid the first fine—under protest and with a request for a hearing to appeal the citation—which was $100. A month later they were fined $200, which they paid, again protesting the fine and asking that the fines stop until there was a ruling from the hearing officer.
On August 2, after the Fromms finally received a hearing with the city, the fines were bumped up to $500 per Bible study. That’s when they contacted the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), a nonprofit legal defense organization comprised of more than 1,000 volunteer attorneys that specializes in defending religious freedom and other concerns without charge.
Zoning Violation or Freedom of Religion?
To gain some perspective on the situation, PJI president Brad Dacus compares the registration process of a home Bible study or church group in Communist China to the city of San Juan Capistrano. “In Communist China a home can have a Bible study, or a home church, and they do not have to report it at all to anyone so long as it’s under 15 people. If it’s over 15 people they simply have to register it with the government. In San Juan Capistrano if you have over three people you not only have to register but you have to spend a lot of money and time to apply for a Conditional Use Permit . . . after which you can still be denied by the city and be back where you started. Whenever a city’s policy is more restrictive in regard to religious freedom than Communist China, you have to take note and call it what it is, which is religious oppression.”4
Christian fellowship has been at the heart of Christianity since the days of the apostles. “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46, 47, NIV).5 Popular forms of Christian fellowship have always, but particularly in the past century, included small-group studies, friendship evangelism, and home Bible studies. If you take away the right of Christians to get together with other believers, particularly in the privacy of their own home, you are interfering with their right to worship in the way they see fit. You are interfering with their religious freedom.
But that’s not to say that this is strictly a Christian issue, because the section of the Capistrano Municipal Code (9-3.301) that the Fromms violated also prohibits regular meetings by “fraternal” or “nonprofit” groups as well as “religious” ones. This means that a next-door neighbor’s Monday afternoon women’s bridge game would be a no-no. Also the weekly after-school Boy Scouts meeting. And don’t even think about having the guys over every week to watch the game. That these gatherings, and countless other Bible study groups, happen there is no doubt. And here is the rub: although they are against the city code, they will not be restricted unless someone complains. If a neighbor doesn’t like you, then you’d better scratch that annual Christmas party or you’ll be paying some hefty fines.
What makes this situation so reprehensible in a country like America is the fact that the sole reason the Fromms are embroiled in this situation with the city council is precisely and only because someone complained. Someone didn’t like the fact that they were having a Bible study. Someone used the city code to enact religious persecution.
One Bad Apple
Stephanie says that over the years they have tried to get along with the neighbor who complained, but their attempts have been in vain. “We don’t want to be known as the people who cause problems with the neighbors. We tried to be accommodating. We even set out parking cones blocking off areas around her driveway so she wouldn’t be inconvenienced, but parking is not the issue; religion is, and there’s nothing I can do about that.
“And this is only the beginning. A woman called me the other day. She lives in a neighborhood in my city. She’s been having 35 to 40 people over for Bible studies. They’ve been having trouble with a neighbor’s dog that barks incessantly. They’ve tried numerous ways to handle the barking, and now the neighbor is implying that if they don’t put up with his barking dog, he’s going to turn them in for having a Bible study in their home. You can see where this is going.”
Another woman who contacted Stephanie told her that she is in the process of purchasing a multimillion-dollar home in the city but put the escrow on hold until she hears the outcome of the Fromms’ case because she intends to have Bible studies in her home.
It’s All in Code
If you are tempted to shrug off the Fromms’ predicament by thinking that they are merely the isolated victims of a primitive, backward-thinking city code, guess again, because the same code might be lurking in your own city’s municipal ordinances; it just hasn’t been activated yet. When cities are planning their ordinances, they choose from “clusters” that may or may not serve them well down the road. In this case the San Juan Capistrano city code was adopted, and life went on its merry way until someone complained, which activated a code that hadn’t been challenged before. Although the experience has been tough, Stephanie says they are glad that their situation exposed the misuse of the city codes. “Now, hopefully, they can correct it.”
Dacus says, “We’re not declaring that everyone on the city council has an agenda against Christians; we know for a fact that such is not the case. That said, we are hoping that this city council will move expeditiously to revise their policy to ensure this will never happen again. And we also expect them to refund the money for the fines that have been paid so far.”
“We have some really good city council people who want to do the right thing, and we have a very strong hope that they’ll do it,” Stephanie echoes.
The Legal Two-Step
A hearing was set for October 7 to contest the fines, but had to be rescheduled to November 18. At this writing it is not clear what the outcome will be. However, the city council meets every other week, and if they decide to reverse the fines there won’t be any need for a court date.
In order to change the city codes, though, the city council must request the planning commission to rewrite them, and if that doesn’t happen, the next step is federal court.
“We’re really hoping that the city of SJC and cities across the country will reassess and amend their policy to focus on legitimate concerns of the city,” says Dacus. “Such a policy would be one that addresses health and safety concerns as well as immitigable nuisances. But dictating specifically how many people and how often they may meet at a home when there are no nuisances, health, or safety concerns is simply an overreaching action of government that has no place in the United States of America.”
One witty poster who added a comment to an article about the Fromms’ situation summed it up well. “City of San Juan Capistrano,” wrote D. Gonzalez, “have you heard of a document called the Constitution? Your city code is violating it.”6 Hopefully San Juan Capistrano will rewrite their city codes and provide a beacon of religious freedom to other cities that will undoubtedly face this issue down the road.
Update: Late last year the city dropped the action against the Fromms and refunded the fines. However this and similar laws remain.
2 Quotes attributed to Stephanie Fromm are from an October 27, 2011, telephone interview with the author unless otherwise noted.
4 Brad Dacus, president, Pacific Justice Institute, phone interview, Oct. 25, 2011.
5 Scripture quotations credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.