What counts as a church? Chuck and Stephanie Fromm recently found out.
After hosting several periodic Bible studies for up to 50 people in their home in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., the Fromms were fined $300 for violating a city ordinance that prohibits groups of three or more people from gathering without a permit. The couple appealed and city officials agreed last month to reimburse them and re-examine the ordinance, but the case created a stir in religious circles.
"It struck a deep nerve. Bible studies in people's homes have been a long part of American culture and heritage," says Brad Dacus of the Pacific Research Institute, which took on the Fromms' case. "We're concerned that other cities will try to get away with the same thing."
Megachurches often dominate the news, but most religious institutions in America are small. The median church size is 75 regular participants on Sunday mornings, according to the 2009 National Congregations Study, which also found that about 60% of churches have an attendance between seven and 99 people. Just 0.4% of churches have more than 2,000 attendees, falling into the megachurch category.
Even those churches that eventually grow to a few hundred or a few thousand start small. Many churches originate as a Bible study in someone's home before renting or buying more formal location. Saddleback Church began in 1979 as a small Bible study with one other family in Rick Warren's condo. Seattle's Mars Hill Church began in 1996 in the apartment of Mark and Grace Driscoll.
Megachurches have actually spurred more growth in small home gatherings, which include not only Bible studies but groups devoted to topics such as marriage support, parenting and personal finance. Half of megachurches used such small groups in 2000, while 80% use them now, says Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. A recent Lifeway Research study of 7,000 Protestant churches found that on average, half of those in their congregations participated in small groups. "Pastors are asking, 'How do you get people from sitting in rows to sitting in circles?'" says Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research.
But modern zoning laws haven't caught up with this trend. What to do, for example, about the parking congestion caused by a regular gathering of several families for a Bible study? "Zoning laws and the ideas that lie behind them are so outdated that it's going to take some time before they fully grasp the changes of the shape of American religion," says Mr. Thumma.
Did I read this right? That city has an ordinance against "groups of three or more gathering without a permit"?
Sounds like a clear violation of the First Amendment, to me. Unless one is operating a business, one needs no "permit" to gather in a private home from the city or anyone else. The U.S. Constitution says so. }
- Don Cirelli
It could be a violation, but municipalities can have zoning laws for various reasons, so the question is at what point is restricting these house gatherings for zoning reasons a violation of amendment rights.
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