EDITORIAL: Illegal religious gatherings

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Religious freedom recently clashed with arrogant bureaucracy in San Diego County, Calif. Religious freedom prevailed.

For five years, the Rev. David Jones and his wife Mary have held Bible studies at their home in Bonita, Calif. With the impeccable timing of a soulless bureaucrat, on Good Friday morning, a San Diego County Code Enforcement officer appeared at the Jones residence, taking photographs and subjecting Mrs. Jones to a sharp interrogation. Did they sing at their meetings? Did they say amen and “praise the Lord?” After Mary responded in the affirmative, the officer declared that these were illegal religious gatherings which must stop immediately.

On April 14, the Joneses received a citation warning them to “cease/stop religious assembly on parcel or obtain a major use permit.” Obtaining the permit could cost tens of thousands of dollars, and failure to do so would result in fines starting at $100 and escalating to $1,000. After that, the county official reportedly had warned, “it will get ugly.”

But the situation was already ugly. The First Amendment prohibits government from making laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion, or the right of people peaceably to assemble. Common sense argues that a weekly Bible study group that attracts an average of 15 people would be protected from any form of state intrusion.

The Joneses had no intention of ceasing their Bible studies. Attorney Dean Broyles of the Western Center for Law & Policy, who represented the couple, told us he advised them that they should “obey God, not man.” The county dug in on its position until local news organizations picked up the story and a barrage of criticism erupted, at which point the county wisely chose to back down.

County Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard released a statement saying “no one would find the infringement of such rights more abhorrent.” Officials now contend that the issue was really about parking, which Mr. Broyles said is “completely absurd” since the matter was never raised in the weeks during the dispute.

Similar cases have occurred in Connecticut and Florida, threatening the survival of prayer groups and other private religious gatherings. But as this case shows, out-of-control administrators will fold when their schemes are exposed. This is a useful illustration of the power of the press and common sense in defending religious rights. In many government agencies, a refresher course on civil liberties is in order.

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