COUNTY WON'T FORCE CHRISTIANS TO HAVE A PERMIT FOR BIBLE STUDY
By Helen Gao, Union-Tribune Staff Writer, Janine Zúńiga, Union-Tribune Staff Writer
David Jones, a pastor in National City, holds Bible study groups in his Bonita home. (Peggy Peattie / Union-Tribune) - Documents
San Diego County's April 14 code-enfocement warning against the Joneses' Bible study for a religious assembly lacking a permit May 26 letter from the Joneses' lawyer, Dean Broyles, to the county County Administrative Officer Walt Ekard's May 29 statement saying "the Bible studies will continue" HIGHLIGHTS
Tuesday letter from Dean Broyles, attorney for David and Mary Jones: “The Citation specifically orders the homeowner to 'cease/stop religious assembly' as opposed to all other types of assembly, such as holding secular (non-religious) meetings, parties or events. Therefore, pursuant to well-established legal precedent, the Order is not neutral because it specifically targets only religious meetings.”
Statement yesterday from Walt Ekard, chief administrative officer for San Diego County: “Let me be clear: religious intolerance in any form is not, and never will be, allowed under any circumstance in San Diego County government. I deeply regret that a routine code enforcement issue has transformed into a debate over religious freedom in San Diego County.”
Sweeping issues of religious freedom and governmental regulation are swirling around Pastor David Jones' house in rural Bonita, attracting attention from as far away as China and New Zealand.
He says it all started with $220 in car damage.
Jones and his wife, Mary, hold a weekly Bible study at their home that sometimes attracts more than 20 people, with occasional parking issues. Once, a car belonging to a neighbor's visitor got dinged.
David Jones paid for the damage, but he thinks the incident spurred a complaint to the county.
A code enforcement officer warned the couple in April for holding a “religious assembly” without a permit. The action became an international incident when it was reported last week on the Web site worldnetdaily.com.
The Joneses assert that the county's action violates their rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. Their story was picked up by conservative Web sites for days, then made it to CNN yesterday.
Barraged by hundreds of complaints, San Diego County officials backed down yesterday from their enforcement. “No one respects the right to free religious expression more than I do, and no one would find the infringement of such rights more abhorrent,” county Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard said in a statement.
Chandra Wallar, the county's general manager of land use and environment, said the county has re-examined the situation and decided that the Joneses don't need a permit after all.
Religious assembly, under the county land-use code, is defined as “religious services involving public assembly such as customarily occurs in synagogues, temples, and churches.”
Wallar said that definition, which doesn't spell out specific thresholds on when a religious gathering becomes a religious assembly, probably needs to be clarified and that more training may be warranted for code enforcement officers.
She said the county was not targeting the Joneses because they were exercising their religion, but rather it was trying to address parking and traffic issues.
“We've advised the pastor he has the authority to continue to hold his meetings just as he's held them,” Wallar said. “My hope is we will be able to resolve the traffic concerns.”
Wallar said the person who filed the complaint alleged that Bible study was drawing 30 to 40 cars.
In an interview yesterday, the pastor said at most, there are six additional cars on Bible study day. Jones, pastor of South Bay Community Church in National City, said he has visitors park in a lot that he owns beside his house.
“We're in trouble if they are going to go with a parking issue, because that means that thousands of people in Bible study groups could be cited for a parking violation,” Jones said.
“What about people who gather to play Texas Hold 'Em, Mommy and Me, 'Monday Night Football,' Boy Scouts, Alcoholics Anonymous? Everyone has a right as a homeowner to the quiet enjoyment of their property. They're trying to take that away. We're not going to let it go.”
Constitutional law scholars say that the county can impose land-use restrictions on religious gatherings, as long as they are not unreasonable or discriminatory.
“If people can get together weekly to read books or discuss books or play bridge, if those are OK, there would be a constitutional issue involved in singling out, among other things, religion as a forbidden thing,” said Larry Alexander, constitutional law professor at the University of San Diego.
Dean Broyles, president of the Western Center for Law & Policy, a nonprofit organization in Escondido that supports religious liberty, is representing the Joneses. He said traffic issues were not raised when the code enforcement officer first visited the Joneses in response to the complaint. The warning itself does not mention traffic or parking problems.
“Even though the county is saying it's about traffic and parking, it's a fake issue. It's a fabricated issue,” Broyles said.
According to Broyles, the code enforcement officer asked a series of pointed questions during her visit with the Joneses – questions such as, “Do you sing?” “Do you say 'amen?' ” “Do you say 'praise the Lord?' ”
Wallar said the county is investigating what questions were asked and in what context. She said a code enforcement officer does have to ask questions about how a place is being used to determine what land-use codes are applicable. “Our county simply does not tolerate our employee straying outside what the appropriate questions are,” Wallar said. Ekard, the top county executive, emphasized in his statement that he would get to the bottom of the matter. “Should I find that county staff at any level acted in a heavy-handed way; did anything inappropriate under the circumstances; or that a change or revision to our processes and procedures is warranted, I will take appropriate action immediately,” he said.
As of late yesterday, county Supervisor Greg Cox's office – which represents the area – reported having received 400 e-mail messages about the Joneses'situation. Wallar said her department has received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls as well.
Broyles said he's been fielding media calls nonstop. “It's been hard to do anything else but to handle the phone calls and media interviews,” he said. “It's been crazy, back to back to back to back.”