Blogging from Phoenix—-While non-religious secular clubs and everyday homeowners who like to host large parties are welcome to do as they please in Gilbert Arizona, Christians and other religious groups have been singled out and are prohibited under penalty of law from holding church meetings, Bible study, or having any activity of any size in private homes.

The pastor of a small seven-member Church received a cease and desist letter ordering him to terminate all religious meetings in his home, regardless of size, nature, or frequency. The zoning law prohibits any of Gilbert Arizona’s 200,000 residents from meeting in their private homes for organized religious purposes. In November of 2009, a code enforcement officer on patrol noticed some small signs Pastor Joe Sutherland had put up announcing weekly bible study at his house and issued an official directive ordering the pastor to stop holding meetings in his home.

Despite protest and appeals to the zoning board, the town refuses to back down and is contending under its zoning code, churches within its borders cannot have any home meetings of any size, including Bible studies, three-person church leadership meetings, or potluck dinners. 

The town continues to defend its ban based on claims it creates traffic, parking, and building safety concerns.  But the City has no traffic or building concerns with Cub Scout meetings, Football parties or even large business and social events held on a regular basis and even explicitly makes provisions for day care to operate in private homes it’s just the odd gathering of Christians that seem to bring out a sense of persnickety in the city elders.

Similar cases have occurred in other U.S. cities of late, just last year in San Diego a pastor and his wife were interrogated by county officials over their weekly Bible study and issued a citation barring further studies until they obtained a Major Use Permit, which costs thousands of dollars. In the San Diego case, public outrage and correspondence from Western Law & Policy center resulted in San Diego backing down and telling the couple they were welcome to resume their weekly bible study.

The Gilbert case will work its way through the system and hopefully the seven or so folks who were in the habit of meeting once a week in each other’s homes to study the good book will be permitted to continue, but till then in the city of Gilbert Arizona, at least for now it remains a criminal and finable offense to meet with your friends and neighbors in the privacy of your own home, if you publicly admit the purpose is study of the holy bible.

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