Throwing Christians to the Lions in Gilbert, AZ

Times are hard in the news business, and editors can’t afford to be too finicky when the bottom line is at stake. A tried and true nostrum for sagging readership and circulation numbers is the ubiquitous practice of flogging some controversy in the hopes of inspiring outrage based on a half-baked understanding of the relevant facts. An interesting example of the genre turned up on the FOXNews website yesterday, apparently based on a feed from AP. The headline of the article in question reads, “Church Fights Back After Arizona Town Bans Home Bible Study.” According to the article, the Alliance Defense Fund “has filed an appeal with the town of Gilbert, contending its code violates the U.S. Constitution.”  Related discussion of the matter can be found here and here.  An article on the ADF website claims,

In November 2009, Oasis of Truth Church was ordered in a letter from a Gilbert code compliance officer to stop church meetings in Pastor Joe Sutherland’s home, based on the town’s Land Development Code. The officer was not responding to a complaint, but to signs he came across near Sutherland’s home about the meetings.

The town contends that, under its zoning code, churches within its borders cannot have any home meetings of any size, including Bible studies, three-person church leadership meetings, and potluck dinners. This ban is defended based upon traffic, parking, and building safety concerns. However, nothing in its zoning code prevents weekly Cub Scouts meetings, Monday Night Football parties with numerous attendees, or large business parties from being held on a regular basis in private homes. In fact, the zoning code explicitly allows some day cares to operate from homes.

The ADF doesn’t elaborate on the basis of its claim that “the town contends” these things, but the letter referred to certainly doesn’t go into such elaborate detail.  An interesting artifact of the bureaucratic mind in its own right, it reads,

On 11/23/09, I noticed a number of signs in Riggs Rd., near your house. They were advertising church services in a nearby residence. At that time, I followed the signs, but failed to identify your house.

From the information on the signs, I discovered from your website that you are holding religious assemblies at your home which is residential, Single Family (zoned SF-7).

The Town’s Land Development Code, Section 2.103, C (and Table), prohibits the use of single family residential structures for Religious Assemblies, Small Scale.

At this time, this letter will serve as a ten day written notice to quit such use.

Now, the lust of the religiously inclined for martyrdom goes with the territory, but it turns out that our good Code Compliance Inspector II was not actually channeling the Emperor Nero.   He was merely executing the zoning algorithm as set forth in the Gilbert Land Development Code after the robotic fashion of good bureaucrats everywhere.  As usual in such matters, it never occurred to him to consider such extraneous matters as the intent and purpose of the code, which was presumably to prevent undue noise, disturbance, and traffic congestion in residential areas. 

In fact the Gilbert Code does not single out Christians for special persecution.  Rather, the relevant section reads as follows:

4.505 Religious Assembly

Religious assemblies are not exempt from the requirements of the Zoning Code.

Request for Determination. If a religious assembly use believes any requirement of the Zoning Code imposes a substantial burden on its exercise of its religion, the religious assembly use shall submit to the Zoning Administrator a written statement as to why any requirement imposes a substantial burden on its exercise of religion and a description of any requested accommodation. The Zoning Administrator shall review the statement and determine:

1. Whether the proposed use is a religious assembly use under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act;

2. Whether the requirement imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by the religious assembly use;

3. If the requirement imposes a substantial burden, whether the requirement furthers a compelling governmental interest of the Town, and if so, whether it is the least restrictive requirement necessary to further that compelling governmental interest; and

4. The nature and extent of any accommodation, waiver, or adjustment to a requirement of the Zoning Code, if any.

In other words, according to the plain wording of the Code, religious organizations are not given special license to cause noise and disturbance in residential neighborhoods, but must obey the same rules as everyone else.  However, far from being singled out for oppression, they are granted special indulgence if the zoning laws “impose a substantial burden on the exercise of religion.”  Assuming the city fathers are not all so utterly lacking in common sense as their Code Compliance Inspector II, one must assume the members of the Oasis of Truth Church would have been granted such an indulgence had they applied for it.  Apparently, the thought never occurred to them.  They were too busy savoring the sweetness of martyrdom.  As for the unfortunate Inspector, there is no evidence at all that he was possessed of a demonic hatred of Christians.  Rather, what set him off were the signs, against which the provisions of the Code are particularly strict and explicit. 

Well, no doubt the zoning laws of Gilbert will be reworked, and the Code Compliance Inspector II will be reprogrammed with a modified algorithm.  However, as long as Code Compliance Inspector II’s are not all philosopher kings, and news editors still have to worry about meeting the payroll, we can expect more of the same.

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