FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. — A Virginia resident who recently began a home Bible study is expressing concern over a proposed zoning ordinance that he says may make such gatherings illegal.
Matthew Clark of Fairfax County recently wrote an article warning about the proposal, which he states is unnecessary and intrusive. The ordinance at issue pertains to large home gatherings that are held on a frequent basis, and limits such meetings to three times every 40 days, with a maximum of 49 attendees.
“These gatherings can create parking, noise and other concerns for the neighborhood,” the county writes in an explanation on its website.
“Although occasional, large gatherings—such as private parties, house concerts, religious meetings and social clubs—are expected and permissible activities at a home, gatherings that occur on a regular basis involving numerous people can detract from the residential nature of a neighborhood because most residential structures and neighborhoods are not designed to accommodate such events,” it said.
But Clark says that very few complaints have been lodged over the issue, and that there are better way to handle the matter.
“Because six people complained, the county is poised to violate the right to free speech, the right to religious expression, and the right to freedom of assembly,” he wrote in a piece that was republished by the Christian legal organization American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
“If they park illegally, tow the cars. If they cause a noise violation, issue them a warning or citation. If they litter, ticket them. If they trespass or damage property, arrest them,” Clark said. “But don’t violate my precious First Amendment rights to prevent something I’m not doing and can easily be remedied in any of the above ways.”
Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity also told reporters that he believes the proposal—which could affect all types of gatherings—is problematic and could result in legal action if passed.
“This is yet another instance where we appear to be punishing the many for the actions of the few,” he said. “I believe the county is risking a lawsuit and/or a Constitution challenge by interfering with peoples’ right to assemble.”
The county will host a public meeting at the South County Government Center in Alexandria tonight from 7-9 p.m. to hear feedback on the matter. It is also accepting comments through the end of the month.
Zoning laws have been an increasing concern for Christians nationwide, as some have been fined and even jailed for holding meetings at their home in violation of local regulations. As previously reported, in 2012, a couple in San Juan Capistrano, California was fined $300 for violating the city’s zoning ordinance, which prohibits “religious, fraternal or non-profit [home] gatherings” of 4 or more people without a permit. However, due to the public outcry over the case, the city council changed its zoning code to remove penalties against those who host home Bible studies without government permission.
Michael Salman of Phoenix, Arizona also made headlines in 2012 when he was jailed for 60 days for holding private worship services in a building that he constructed in his back yard.
“Bible studies are not allowed to be conducted in your residence or the barn on your property as these structures do not comply with the construction code for this use,” one letter from the city stated.
Salman was charged for violating code from the International Code Council, which was adopted by the city of Phoenix, and is in place in many municipalities across the nation. It is believed that these codes may be used to shut down many house churches across the nation.