Will Gilbert do right by churches? - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Will Gilbert do right by churches?

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Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2010 3:29 pm | Updated: 3:50 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Daniel Blomberg: Just a few months after it started meeting, a Gilbert zone enforcement officer issued a cease-and-desist order against the Oasis of Truth Church's meetings in homes.

Oasis of Truth Church in Gilbert has seven adult members. It met on a rotating basis in the homes of its members for a few hours of church services and a weekly Bible study. The maximum number of people who ever attended Oasis' meetings, counting children, was 15.

Just a few months after it started meeting, a Gilbert zone enforcement officer issued a cease-and-desist order against the church's meetings in homes. Why was it stopped? Because it was too big? Meeting too often? Generating irate community complaints?

No, apparently the church was targeted simply because it is a church. Nothing more. As the town later acknowledged in an official zoning interpretation, it didn't matter if the meeting in question were a one-time get-together of two people for a quiet prayer time. If the meeting were a church meeting, it is banned. Period.

By contrast, other types of meetings - like Cub Scouts, business parties, or "Monday Night Football" gatherings - were all acceptable. In fact, some day care operations are specifically allowed by the zoning code to be run from homes.

The Alliance Defense Fund became involved because this type of discrimination against churches is unconstitutional. Targeting churches for disfavorable treatment simultaneously violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, since it unfairly limits religious liberty, and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, since it prefers nonreligious meetings to religious ones.

Of course, cities can have some reasonable regulations on how homes are used, preventing your next-door neighbor's duplex from being turned into a shopping mall or a convention center. But such regulations are only legitimate when focused on concerns like traffic, parking, building code safety, and the like. And where the law restricts religious uses without basis in such legitimate concerns, it leaves behind all pretense of legitimate regulation and becomes a tool to silence the church.

Fortunately, Gilbert has announced it wants to fix the problem, beginning with a meeting on Monday night. It has already sent high-ranking officials to church services to apologize and is working with the church now to protect religious liberty. Hopefully, Gilbert's approach to fixing the problem can be a model to other municipalities on how never to have a problem in the first place. Rather than becoming a textbook case of religious discrimination, the town has the opportunity to be quite the opposite: a shining example of a municipality that both respects its citizens and their God-given, constitutionally-protected rights.

What would make that example even more believable would be their cooperation in another problematic situation in which churches are also being targeted for disfavorable treatment. Believe it or not, Gilbert places stricter restrictions on signs that provide directions and invite people to church services than on many other noncommercial signs. So, if you are a political organization, for example, your signs are far less regulated than a church's signs. And that's especially strange since political signs are the ones that most often clutter the roadway, yet the town gives them a free pass. Again, most people understand reasonable restrictions designed to protect the safety of the public and so forth; the point is that the town simply cannot target religious groups.

"Gilbert has adopted a sign ordinance that makes one's head spin to figure out the bounds of its restrictions and exemptions," the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit wrote in November in a lawsuit that ADF filed on behalf of another Gilbert church with regard to the problematic ordinance. It sent the case back to district court to address the church's claim "that the ordinance unfairly discriminates among forms of noncommercial speech."

Remedying both of these situations without further litigation would be a savings for taxpayers, an act of respect for the Constitution, and just simply the right thing to do. We hope the town of Gilbert will agree.

Daniel Blomberg serves as litigation counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund (www.telladf.org), a legal alliance employing a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.

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