House Church vs Zoning Regulations in Gilbert, Arizona

A typically hysterical headline on WorldNetDaily:

Banished! City forbids Bible studies in homes

The article relates the case of the Oasis of Truth Church of Gilbert, Arizona:

Pastor Joe Sutherland had been told in a letter from code compliance officer Steve Wallace that the people were not allowed to meet in a home for church activities under the city’s Land Development Code.

There had been no complaints about the meetings, which had been rotating among members’ homes before the officer wrote the letter and ordered the group to “terminate all religious meetings … regardless of their size, nature or frequency,” because he noticed signs about the meetings.

…A city letter confirmed, “Given that the church is considered to be religious assembly, and given the LDC provisions prohibiting that use on Local streets without Use Permits and prohibiting it in single family residential structures, it follows that the church meetings cannot be held in the home.”

“The assembly activities associated with the church, including Bible studies, church leadership meetings and church fellowship activities are not permitted,” wrote Mike Milillo, the city’s senior planner.

 The article eventually explains that the Oasis of Truth has fallen foul of what appears to be a poorly-worded Land Development Code that was adopted in 2005, and which the mayor wants amended. The Alliance Defense Fund is on the case, and it has a report on its website:

…nothing in [Gilbert’s] zoning code prevents weekly Cub Scouts meetings, Monday Night Football parties with numerous attendees, or large business parties from being held on a regular basis in private homes. In fact, the zoning code explicitly allows some day cares to operate from homes.

Notably, the church only met for a few hours a week in members’ homes, and would rotate to different homes weekly. Further, the church was quite small, consisting of just seven adult members, including three married couples, and their four children.

ADF attorneys argue in their appeal that 1) the town’s zoning code does not authorize such a broad ban on church meetings in homes; 2) the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause doesn’t permit a ban on church meetings where all other meetings are permitted; 3) Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act (FERA) protects “Arizona citizens’ right to exercise their religious beliefs free from undue government interference;” and 4) the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) prevents zoning officials from singling out churches for discriminatory treatment.

The WND article is illustrated with a stock image of some people sitting on a sofa and discussing the Bible, although WND could have used a number of photos from the church’s Facebook site. Here we can see a private house with a sign out front advertising “service times”, and inside rows plastic of seating (although only six adults and two children are present).

The church itself doesn’t appear to be particularly distressed – the Facebook page and the Church’s Twitter feed both have a passing reference in January to “an unfortunate city regulation situation we are working through”, but there’s no cry of persecution.  The church pastors were trained at Bob Jones University in South Carolina; Pastor Drew Sullivan (brother of Joe) has his own Twitter feed here.

UPDATE: Just in case anyone is interested in what I think, it seems to me that the ADF has it right here, given there are no problems with noise or parking. It looks to me that Milillio exceeded his proper authority. However, WND‘s overwrought headline should be seen in the context of Joseph Farah’s long-standing agenda of whipping up paranoia and resentment.