When House Churches Are Illegal

In the Wall Street Journal, Sarah Pulliam Bailey reports on a Bible study in California that was fined for breaking a city ordinance against gathering more than three persons in a private home:

What counts as a church? Chuck and Stephanie Fromm recently found out.

After hosting several periodic Bible studies for up to 50 people in their home in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., the Fromms were fined $300 for violating a city ordinance that prohibits groups of three or more people from gathering without a permit. The couple appealed and city officials agreed last month to reimburse them and re-examine the ordinance, but the case created a stir in religious circles.

“It struck a deep nerve. Bible studies in people’s homes have been a long part of American culture and heritage,” says Brad Dacus of the Pacific Research Institute, which took on the Fromms’ case. “We’re concerned that other cities will try to get away with the same thing.”

Megachurches often dominate the news, but most religious institutions in America are small. The median church size is 75 regular participants on Sunday mornings, according to the 2009 National Congregations Study, which also found that about 60% of churches have an attendance between seven and 99 people. Just 0.4% of churches have more than 2,000 attendees, falling into the megachurch category.

via Sarah Pulliam Bailey: When the Zoning Board Closes Your Church – WSJ.com.

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  • sherry

    Just wondering, does that mean birthday parties, retirement parties wakes, etc. break this law?

  • Brian

    The town must be inundated with permit requests. “On Friday the 14th the Joneses will be hosting the Smiths for dinner, on the 23rd they will be holding little Tony’s birthday party, and on the 29th they’d think they might invite two couples over to watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ All in favor of approving these three permit requests say, ‘Aye’. ”

    Or can you imagine…”Jeez, it was great meeting you , so glad you found our little church. We’d invite you over for dinner today but, you know, they don’t grant retroactive permits in this town….sorry.”

    I’m guessing this must apply to regular recurring meetings…so not only Bible studies, but regular ol’ book clubs, “movie nights”, I suppose Super Bowl parties….the whole thing seems a bit ridiculous. Now if they changed the number from 3 to…I dunno…20? Maybe…

  • Vallen

    This is very interesting, do you know why a law like this was passed?

    • Jordan

      I imagine it was passed in/around the “Grapes of Wrath” days. That is, in the depression when they didn’t want crowds forming unions and such…so that they could pay them cheap, keep control of their capital, stop “the reds”.

      But I really have no clue. From what I gathered in the Grapes of Wrath though, laws like this were common.

  • This is fascinating for a couple reasons, of course. The first being these draconian, unconstitutional, soviet-style gathering laws. And the second being the predominance of small(ish) churches in the states. Having grown up in one of those churches and gone to several of those churches, I guess I should have known…

  • Larry Barber

    And, of course, if you group grows to the point where it can rent or buy its own space, the city will fight issuing the necessary permits for a church since a church will cost that city tax revenue in most case.

  • Jules

    Depends which day of the week, who is working the desk, and the mood their in. Which makes this kind of effort fitting for the Spirit of God. Oh, it may still be an uphill battle. Preseverance we are called to. We ought never be discouraged from making the necessary moves to set Christ up to advance the kingdom. It doesn’t always happen, but it is in the hope, the life, and the future that we don’t stop. I see the home church as the next step in the growth of the church (assuming we are aware and on the look out for its dangers). This is good to keep in mind….if the devil exists; if this character Satan is real, where do you suppose his base of operations is? He’s got the world, the world does not concern satan. Satan is in the Church. This is why it is so vital to know God’s work, and working together with other followers. And, by golly, if there is an issue, a teaching, a principle that is dividing members with a group. Those standing on opposites need to take time out and study some commentaries on the matter. One thing is true of the bible, the true interpretation of any scripture is no readily available. The research has been well over the last few decades. There is little missing now. The problem is not the research, but clinging to dogma that does nothing to advance God’s Kingdom. Like “Hell,” why are Christians still using this technique to win converts. First of all God chooses, we don’t choose Him. Is not the love and passion and desire to know God through Christ the by-products of seeking the Truth. I have little hope in a church whose followers are only in it get their ‘get out of hell card.’

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