The homeowners, Chuck and Stephanie Fromm, were fined $300 for holding the Bible study. Mr. Fromm appealed the ruling to the City of San Juan Capistrano, which was founded as a mission in the late 1700’s and is home to California’s oldest building still in use, a chapel where Father Junipero Serra celebrated mass. Fromm was told by a hearing officer that regular gatherings of more than three people require a conditional use permit. Officials also stated that further religious gatherings in the home would be subject to a $500 fine per meeting. The City eventually rejected the appeal and Pacific Justice Institute has taken the next step by appealing the decision to the California Superior Court in Orange County.
The Bible study group, which met on Sunday mornings, until the City threatened further fines, was perfectly suited for his home, said Chuck Fromm. 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. The group is not affiliated with any particular church, nor is it seeking to establish a church in the home.
The City of San Juan Capistrano is insisting the home Bible study is not allowed because it is a “church,” and churches require a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) in residential areas. Pacific Justice Institute represents the Bible study participants and will fight the city’s decision. In other cases, PJI has represented larger churches that have been required to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars as part of the CUP process, such as engineering and traffic studies, architectural designs and seismic retrofits. CUP’s require public hearings and can be denied outright or granted with numerous limitations.
“Imposing a heavy-handed permit requirement on a home Bible study is outrageous,” said Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute. “In a city so rich with religious history and tradition, this is particularly egregious. An informal gathering in a home cannot be treated with suspicion by the government, or worse than any other gathering of friends, just because it is religious. We cannot allow this to happen in America, and we will fight as long and as hard as it takes to restore this group’s religious freedom.”