Wednesday, September 21, 2011

California: the garbage can of the First Amendment

If I were a swallow, I'd have second thoughts about returning to San Juan Capistrano and consider chugging just a little bit further north to, say, Medford, Oregon. Or just stopping at the border at Tijuana.

Chuck and Stephanie Fromm (LSN)
From Peter Baklinski at

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, CA, September 21, 2011 ( – A Christian husband and wife from California have been fined by their City Council for lacking a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) while holding Bible studies and prayer meetings in their home.
“The fact that a governing body can effectively shut down an act of worship taking place in a private home does not sound like the heart of America,” said Chuck Fromm, who hosts the meetings.
What is at stake, he says, is “the right to gather.”
Since June 2010, the Fromms have opened their home on the northern outskirts of San Juan Capistrano, CA for a Sunday morning Bible study due to renovations at their normal place of meeting. Since last January, they have also hosted a Thursday evening Bible study, which like the Sunday meeting is said to draw anywhere from 6 to 40 people.
The Fromms say the non-denominational meetings are well-suited to their home, located on a sizable acreage similar to surrounding homes, and they say they have been careful to maintain low noise levels both inside the house and on the patio. They say visitors who attended the meetings never had trouble finding a place to park on the property, which is large enough to accommodate a corral, barn, and pool.
Last April, the city of San Juan Capistrano issued a notice to the Fromms stating that they had violated the city’s Municipal Code for Residential Districts by holding meetings for an “organization” in a residential area.
Section 9-3.301 of the San Juan Capistrano code prohibits “religious, fraternal, or nonprofit organizations” in residential neighbourhoods without a Conditional Use Permit. This prohibition applies to “churches, temples, synagogues, monasteries, religious retreats, and other places of religious worship and other fraternal and community service organizations.” San Juan Capistrano has a reactive code enforcement policy, meaning that officers only respond to complaints. 
Since last May, the Fromms have paid the city $300 in fines for holding their religious gatherings, but have also appealed the citation. Despite letters of support sent to the city from several of Fromm’s neighbors, who deny that the meetings are disturbing the peace, the city sided with the complainer last month.
The city’s hearing officer reiterated to the Fromms that regular gatherings of more than 3 people require a CUP and warned them that future infractions would carry a heftier penalty of $500, up from the June fine amount of $200.
California seems to have a problem not only with the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment but also the "peaceable assembly" clause as well. Because the gathering doesn't have to be religious in nature to violate the code; it merely has to be regular, purposeful and involve more than three people. Maybe if they held these meetings under the cover of noisy, alcoholic celebrity parties ...?