Published: November 29, 2011
Bible study not prohibited after all
Facing lawsuit, San Juan Capistrano drops action against couple over weekly meetings at their home
The City of San Juan Capistrano has lifted fines imposed on the owners of a private home used for weekly Bible study and agreed to review its policies after the case ended up in court.
Homeowners Chuck and Stephanie Fromm had been fined $300 and threatened with additional fines of $500 per meeting if they did not stop holding Bible study sessions at their home each Sunday morning without a conditional use permit. When the city initially rejected their appeal, the Pacific Justice Institute stepped in and filed suit on behalf of the couple in Orange County Superior Court.
San Juan Capistrano was founded as a mission in the late 1700s and is home to California’s oldest building still in use -- a chapel where Father Junipero Serra celebrated Mass.
“The city recently dropped its action against the couple and refunded the fines they had paid,” Pacific Justice Institute said in a Nov. 22 press release. “However, the city has not yet changed its laws that led to the controversy.”
“In a letter to the couple, Karen P. Brust, San Juan Capistrano City Manager, who had been working with the Fromms, also stated, ‘City staff will commence the discussion with the Planning Commission… about the issue of the need to clarify the Land Use Code with respect to places of public assembly and gatherings at single family residences,’” said the PJI press release.
In a Nov. 18 press release, the city of San Juan Capistrano presented the issue a little differently. “Chuck and Stephanie Fromm and San Juan Capistrano City Manager Karen Brust announced Wednesday morning that the case against the City in OC Superior Court, appealing an administrative citation issued to the Fromms, has been dismissed,” said the news release. “The action arose out of a neighbor’s complaint about parking and traffic impacts from Bible studies held at Mr. and Mrs. Fromm’s home, and the City’s subsequent fines and requirement that the couple apply for a Conditional Use Permit. The Fromms stepped back from their appeal as the city has initiated discussions to review their permit policies for home meetings of all types. The original fines have been reversed and repaid to the Fromms.”
The city, said Brust, “does not prohibit does not prohibit Bible studies and believes in the right of all its residents to exercise First Amendment freedoms,” said the news release. "Protecting the rights of the City's residents is paramount," said Brust.
Pacific Justice Institute said in its release that it would keep an eye on the situation. “While that case has now been favorably resolved, PJI will continue to press city officials for a resolution of the underlying problems, which include unfettered discretion on the part of code enforcement officers,” said the release.
“From the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock, through the founding of San Juan Capistrano as a mission, the freedom to worship God has been a bedrock American principle,” said PJI president Brad Dacus. “This victory is an important reminder of that principle.”
“We will continue fighting to ensure that SJC and other cities put freedom first -- especially when it comes to informal gatherings in private homes,” said Michael Peffer, who heads PJI’s Southern California office and handled the case.