In the same week we learned that the country of Uzbekistan levied massive fines on Baptists for meeting without a license and the town of Gilbert (AZ) banned church meetings in the homes of its residents.
Yes, you read that right. Gilbert’s town administration had, at least for a period of time until they caught up with their mistake, prohibited the holding of church meetings in private homes. [Disclosure: I lived in Gilbert for three years.]
Mayor John Lewis acknowledged that “a news story began circulating on the Internet that has spread throughout the world. Hundreds of e-mails are arriving and religious groups are organizing to boycott Gilbert and protest our zoning code.” The city fathers hastily issued a press release saying the zoning code was unintentional and, while they didn’t point any fingers, apparently some staffer did some major overreaching.
Town zoning code
The town council wrote local pastors: “A town zoning code intended to help neighborhoods with traffic, parking and safety concerns had been interpreted by town staff to mean that small church groups could not meet in their own homes. The council immediately asked town staff to make changes to the code and not enforce the code while changes were being considered.”
Turns out that Oasis of Truth Church, launched last year, and having only seven adult members and four children, was meeting in different homes on a rotating basis three times a week for fellowship, biblical and moral instruction and worship, the Christian Post reported. Only one car was on the street, the others were in the driveway of the home.
Well, this small congregation was quite savvy about its rights. They turned to the Alliance Defense Fund in Scottsdale, AZ to appeal the ruling that, says The Christian Post, “banning religious meetings of any size or frequency in a home is unprecedented and unconstitutional.”
An inspector had apparently “discovered signs advertising church services in a residence,” and issued a cease-and-desist letter. No complaints from neighbors had been registered about the church meetings.
Mayor Lewis wrote that “Gilbert is known as a family-oriented community and our faith groups are a vital part of our town. We want to keep it that way.” He attended services at the Oasis of Truth Church the following Sunday. A network of home-based churches in California, called The Well, said the incident was a victory for publicizing the house church movement.
‘Illegal’ pray meeting
A former mayor, under whose administration the code was approved by the town council, said he was going to hold an “illegal” prayer meeting in his Gilbert residence in defiance of the code. This particular problem had not been considered when the code provision passed by a number of people and committees.
Gilbert is a community of 221,000 people and has been known as one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, gobbling up desert land with new neighborhoods.
It was the town’s Land Development Code that apparently banned “religious assembly” from residences, and a conditional use permit was not available for relief. Apparently no town administrator said to himself, “Humm! Does this make sense? Is there likely to be fallout from this? Maybe I should check with my supervisors.”
There’s another case of religious discrimination pending with the city that dates from 2005, involving the Good News Presbyterian Church and some signs that were left up over night. “This is just another case that proves the town is discriminating against people of faith,” says ADF attorney David Cortman.
“You can have a political sign up for years at a time, or even an ideological sign,” AZCentral.com reported Cortman saying. “The law requires that all signs are treated the same under the law.”
Mayor Lewis wrote the city’s pastors: “Our partnership with our local ministers and pastors is excellent. Gilbert is considered a religious friendly area. Religious activities occur all over town and most especially in our homes. The town council and our citizens will keep it that way.”
We can only hope that Christians in Uzbekistan fare as well, a country where the U.S. State Department lists it as one of eight “Countries of Particular Concern,” a designation for the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.
Ronald E. Keener