Religious Freedom Watch: Rancho Cucamonga, CA Demands CUP (Updated)


Rancho Cucamonga has dropped the action against the Bible Study.

Original Post 27 Mar 2010

First it was San Diego, then Gilbert, AZ and now Rancho Cucamonga.

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  1. This is a clear case of intentional persecution of Christians and not a bureaucratic mistake. A review of the facts discloses that the City, at the highest levels, is aware of the facts, understands this is just a Bible study, knows what it’s doing, and will not back down. This is no church worship service. It’s a Bible study. And there are no more than 15 persons present. While a neighbor complained, the neighbors apparently don’t complain when others in the neighborhool hold parties with 25-40 persons present, or Cub Scout pack meetings of 15 persons meet in homes, or Superbowl parties of 25 people meet. Under First Amendment doctrine, government’s first duty is to protect the speaker and his right to speak, not the complainer.

    Under current law, this should not stand as it’s content-based discrimination and should be void for substantial overbreadth, either on its face or as applied. As the city broadly defines a “church,” a family praying together over dinner would require a CUP.

    Christians have to attack these growing threats to religious liberty. If the City will not back down, and it looks like it won’t, there is no choice but to litigate. If the City is allowed to shut down Bible studies, it will encourage cities all across the land to do likewise. One strategy is to sue the individual bureacrats who are depriving the Christians of their legal rights and pierce their immunity. If the plaintiff can pierce the immunity, and we’ve been able to do that before, the plaintiff can recover damages and punitive damages from the city officials, and then enfore the judgment by having the marshall seize their bank accounts and other assets. Thus, an effective legal strategy can be to cause them and their families financial loss and hurt at a personal level as it can be a wake up call to other city officials around the country to think a second time before acting unlawfully.

    • CVD,

      I don’t see your source to claim that “A review of the facts discloses that the City, at the highest levels, is aware of the facts, understands this is just a Bible study, knows what it’s doing, and will not back down.”

      In my experience, I have discovered that most zoning administrators are mostly ignorant about their own zoning code, including the comprehensive plan, and I’ve also noticed that city councils are generally unfamiliar with their local zoning regulations until the city attorney gets involved.

      I’ve seen zoning administrators write letters that were complete nonsense, only to have their decisions overturned by council after conferring with counsel. The letter in the linked article seems like one of these instances where the ZA blew off some steam, not knowing that he doesn’t have a clue. You can’t obtain a CUP without a hearing, and you can’t tell a resident that their application for a CUP will be denied before the hearing takes place. The ZA may as well have signed his resignation letter at the same time he served notice. City Council won’t put up with that, if it ever makes it to them, and this case would be a slam dunk on appeal (my attorney tells me there’s no such thing as a slam dunk, but I like the phrase anyway).

      Am I wrong?

      • Chunck: After litigating dozens of these kinds of cases, I can agree with you that more than half the time the action of the city or county is the product of mistake, ignorance, or blunder by a low-level official. Usually a call or letter to the council or city attorney gets it reverse. This isn’t one of those cases, apparently, according to the attorneys working on the case (whom I know). The City is digging in. Under current law, it will be reversed and the Bible study will win.

          • Chunck, a good lawyer would never call anything a “slam dunk.” Judges are the wild card. But if the law is correctly applied, this should be a slam dunk for the Bible study folk.

  2. Dr. Clark, is this not an example of why Christians, and yes, the institutional church as well as individual Christians, need to fight against the increasing secularization of our society?

    I’m grateful to live in a part of the United States where the cities are working aggressively to restrict “adult” businesses to the extent that the courts will permit them to do so, and the churches are organizing fairly effective boycotts of businesses that sell pornographic magazines. Three of our five “adult” entertainment venues have been shut down in the last five years, several business owners of non-adult businesses have been forced out of business because of their porn sales, and that’s not a bad track record outside a major Army installation that’s just two dozen miles away from a mostly male engineeering school. Even our largest local mainline church is fairly conservative by the standards of its denomination, and local politicians have little choice but to listen to the evangelical community because they’re not going to stay in office very long if they don’t.

    I’m well aware that’s not the case in a lot of parts of the United States, but it is an example of what the Christian community can do if it works together to address issues.

    And for those who think this is just a typical case of Bible Belt religiosity, I live in a city which not too many years ago was known as the “Sodom and Gomorrah” of the region because of its strip clubs, adult movie theaters, rampant public drunkenness, and open prostitution in the streets catering to the soldiers, and behind the scenes, suffered from heavy infiltration of most of the business community and elected boards by both local criminals and out-of-town organized crime. Things got so bad that the state attorney general, due to major complaints from Army families, sent in the state patrol to clean up the mess because most of the local elected officials were either corrupt or afraid to act against criminal elements who were literally blowing up their enemies’ homes with pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails.

    Similar problems and reform happened in Phenix City outside Fort Benning, and a lot of other Army installations in the South, and are a good example of what Christian citizens need to be doing to take back their communities from people who want to aggressively promote evil or persecute the church.

    • 1. And the Apostolic example for the visible institutional church doing what you recommend would be? Is this a fourth mark of the church? I should very much like to see the visible church learning to practice first three marks first before taking on another. You are quite welcome to form a private society for the advancement of religious liberty but the visible, institutional church has all it can do to preach the gospel purely, to administer the sacraments purely, and to administer discipline.

      2. The rhetoric of “taking back” any earthly polity seems to me to be virtually impossible to justify biblically. It owes more to Jerry (Falwell) than to Jesus or Paul. Peter did not counsel those in Asia Minor who suffered the same sorts of slights at the hands of neighbors and masters to “take back” anything. He counseled them to live quietly in submission to masters and the political rulers. If that’s quietism, then blame the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul. They, not I, taught it.

      3. Yes, Christians need to serve the communities by advocating for religious freedom and toleration and against religious prejudice and ignorance especially as it is put into law or public policy. This is not the same thing, however, as seeking to exercise political power in the name of the Savior who suffered rather than call down legions of angels nor is it “taking back” anything. We need not “take back” anything because Jesus is already Lord and sovereign over all things. Further, the sovereign Lord has not commissioned Christians to see to “take back” political and cultural power anywhere on earth. This is why Paul says that our citizenship is in heaven. That’s not Plato, that’s Paul. Yes, the magistrate has a natural, divinely revealed duty (Belgic Art 36, revised) to preserve civil space for the preaching of the gospel. Christians ought to work and pray for liberty, but we’re not commissioned to seek to take over or take back anything. The mode of “taking back” belonged to the Mosaic theocracy not to the NT church.

      4. The only thing the church needs to take back is the church. That would be a very good start indeed.

      • RSC, I don’t think you want to say that the church should not become involved in protecting religious liberty. Perhaps not to take back America, and not as its primary focus, but to protect the right of the church, as a corproate citizen of the kingdom of man, yes. To say that the church may not actively defend religious liberty can result in the catastrophic eclipse of religious freedom — for churches. Often churches have no option but to hire a lawyer and fight. For example, in one case a large major-city church had local parish home Bible study groups spread throughout the City that met in members’ homes. The City used its zoning laws to prevent the home Bible studies from meeting. When this was unlawful restriction was challenged before the City council and in court by some of the individual home owners, the court ruled that only the church had legal standing to bring this suit because the home Bible studies were sponsored by the church. The church was reluctant to get involved, but it had no choice other than to stop holding home Bible studies and fellowship groups. The church was the real party in interest. The church brought suit and obtained a permanent injunction against this abuse.

        I represent pro bono numerous churches that are the subject of abusive, unlawful land use rulings by municipal zoning boards, city counsis, and county boards of administration. Ofteh neighbors try to shut down the church because they don’t like the traffic and cars on Sunday morning. Many cities oblige the neighbors and revoke the church’s CUP. The church has to go to court to fight for its existence. In other cases, counties have zoned specifically to prevent the building of any churches within the county — in one case, within 150 miles of a new series of townships. Local churches that wanted to plant churches withing the 150 mile radius had to go to court to obtain a finding that the zoning restrictions were unlawful. (The County didn’t hate Christians necessarily, but just wanted more tax revenue.)

        Churches must not acquiesce to this kind of abuse or pagan bureacrats will in time shutter our churches.

        • CVD,

          Yes and no.

          I do want to say that. Christians may and even must be involved in advocacy but the church as such, as in institution cannot. It is contrary to the nature of the church as such to be actively involved in such things. To be sure, the Reformed have always allowed that, in extremis, the church may speak to the civil magistrate but not in re daily, ordinary political squabbles.

          One of the points of the two-kingdoms analysis is to preserve the unique character of the church as the ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline, from other societies which may be formed at will to address any and all other social questions in the civil kingdom. Only the church may administer Word, sacrament, and discipline and she has a most difficult time doing that properly!

          The church as church may find it necessary to retain counsel to protect itself. I don’t deny that, but that would in extremis. It will be more effective, however, and better for the church as an institution in Christian citizens take up this cause and advocate charitably and patiently in the public square.

          • RSC, I wasn’t speaking of political advocacy, and I agree that the SOTC requirs that the church qua church refrain from political advocacy in most cases. With that said however, churches need to be vigilent in the current climate to protect its legal rights from unconstitutional or otherwise unlawful encroachment by government. This may require the elders to get interface regularly with local and county officials and to communicate to members threats to the local church from local bureacrats and complaining neighbors.

            The chuches we work with are more or less regularly under fire from complaining neighbors and local officials. In some cases locals organize petition drives to complain about parking, noise, and such. I advise churches to be proactive and head off these threats by sitting down with neighbors to try to address their concerns where possible, and to meet regularly with city officials to let them know what the church is doing to ameliorate perceived problems.

            In nearly all cases that I have worked on, the complaints from neighbors or city officials were a smokescreen. The neighbors just don’t like churches in their neighborhoods, and are looking for something or anything to make trouble. Or the city officials don’t like church.

  3. I wonder if everyone would feel the same way if they lived in the neighborhood in question. Maybe the Bible study is an irritant, maybe there are more than 15 people coming and going, maybe they are loud and obnoxious, maybe the permit issue is just an attempt by the city to respond to neighbors’ complaints. How do we know? Maybe this is just a case of the Bible study hosts not addressing the legitimate concerns of their neighbors, so the neighbors don’t have to go to the city and complain. Do you really trust the news media to give you accurate facts about the situation? Do you really want to simply assume that the Christians in question are completely innocent and are being persecuted? Do you really want to assume that the city officials involved have nothing better to do with their time than persecute Christians by requiring permits? Everyone who reports on a story like this has something to gain by making it sound outrageous, rather than simply a neighborhood squabble. . .

    • Janet,

      Well, I’m irritated by graduation parties and super bowl parties and just parties that happen regularly in my neighborhood. I doubt that the bible study is keeping people awake til 2AM. I doubt that the bible study is throwing beer cans in neighborhood yards etc.

      Members of a Bible Study have a responsibility to be good citizens and neighbors. If parking is an issue, they should seek a resolution (e.g., off-site parking) but I’m guessing, from what I know about life in So Cal, the parking issue is a smoke screen. In a world of a gazillion cul-de-sacs, parking probably isn’t the real issue. If it is, then those Avon Parties are also right out.

    • Janet, as one of those members of the news media who reports regularly on the activities of planning and zoning commissions, I’m quite used to the problems generated when one group of neighbors gets mad at another group of neighbors and tries to use city ordinances to restrict other people’s use of their private property.

      I’m also very much aware that reporters sometimes get the story seriously wrong for a number of reasons, some understandable (deadlines, relying on official information that should have been correct but wasn’t, etc.) and others much less so.

      Here’s the root issue: We do not have a constitutional right not to be annoyed by our neighbor’s use of their own private property, unless they do one of a very limited list of things that create a public nuisance. It’s private property, after all.

      That’s why zoning ordinances sometimes get abused to do things they were never intended to do. If you buy a house and you’re in an R-1 single-family residential zoning area, you have a legitimate legal right to expect that your neighbor will follow the zoning rules and not put up a multi-family apartment complex, or a commercial business, or an industrial factory (although any of those would be legal if they were pre-existing nonconforming uses before the zoning ordinance was adopted, or if the zoning classification was changed after the property owner started to use it in those other ways).

      That’s an oversimplification, of course, and much depends on the details of the city’s zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan.

      But what you absolutely **CANNOT** do is place restrictions on a religious activity that would not be placed on all similar activities. In other words, if the city allows Avon or Tupperware parties that sell commercial products out of the home, they can’t bar a Bible study or church group from meeting in the home with a similar number of people.

  4. Dr. Clark:

    I prefer to cite Oliver Cromwell or the early New England civil ordinances rather than Jerry Falwell, and I realize you may not concur with the Puritan hope of a Christian civil government.

    But to cite Reformed leaders who you will presumably agree represent the mainstream historic Reformed faith, I simply cannot see John Knox or John Calvin telling the institutional church that it should stand by quietly while civil rulers impose abusive laws forbidding or even restricting exercise of what they would have called the “true Reformed religion” (to quote a later English phrase). On the contrary, they were quite aggressive in not merely stasnding up for the right to free exercise of religion, but rather arguing that the civil government has a God-given mandate to promote the true faith.

    In our constitutional republic we are limited in what we can ask for, barring amendment of the constitution, and I understand that. We cannot realistically call for the civil rulers to advocate for Reformed Christianity, and an appeal to the original intent of the Founders would, at most, call for a restoration of a common Judeo-Christian view of civic morality rather than even trinitarian Christianity.

    But if the institutional church cannot even speak up when it is being oppressed by evil officials, have we not adopted the practices of pietistic anabaptists rather than the historic position of the Reformed faith? If not, why not?

    • Darrell, I think RSC is correct to stress that the church in its institutional capacity should be about the business of Word, sacrament, and discipline. As Dr. Clark mentioned, individual Christians may — and I would say should — speak on behalf of religlious freedom. Legal rights are the subject of the civil sphere, not the spiritual kingdom, and it’s appropriate that invididual citizens work to protect the freedom of the church — and the freedoms of all other citizens as well, Christian or not. When constitutional rights and the rule of law are preserved, the church’s freedom to be the church is preserved. This follows from the biblical doctrine of the two kingdoms, sometimes called the “spirituality of the church.”

      Not all Christians agree with this doctrine, and you may not. You might find interesting Dr. VanDrunen’s book, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms.

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