Religious freedom? Maybe if you’re not a Christian.

Randy Alcorn wrote a tremendous novel about Christian persecution in China. The book is titled Safely Home, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It will cause you to think about your position of faith, of service, of prayer and devotion. It will also enlighten you to what believers around the globe face on a daily basis.

We are indeed granted great liberties in the United States! Fortunately, we live in a democracy where our liberties also include defending our rights. In order to do that, however, we must be aware of infringements against them.

Two major stories have caught my attention over the past year. One is from the UK and the other is here in the US. Both could potentially impact all believers on a personal level. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. (Remember the rules.)

Impediments to Social Service

A year ago (28 February 2011) a UK court ruled to uphold a ban against Christian parents serving in the foster care system. (Read the story here.) Technically, I suppose they can still foster children as long as they keep their Christian beliefs to themselves, specifically if the foster child shows any inclination toward homosexuality. The ruling authorities claim that the laws of the realm “do not include Christianity” and that, in fostering system, “the equality provisions concerning sexual orientation should take precedence” over religious rights.

Wait a minute — Does that mean that Christians no longer have rights under the law? Does that mean a CHILD’S sexual freedoms are more important than an ADULT’s religious freedoms? What is that about?!

Now, I am not saying that all Christians should be allowed to be foster parents. Neither am I saying that children’s rights are less valuable than adults’. What I am saying is that being a Christian should not automatically black-list adults from participating in social service.

If a family can provide a safe, loving, nurturing home for a child, it shouldn’t matter at all, legally speaking, what their religious affiliations are.

One article discussing this case claimed that Christians pose a serious threat to children’s emotional development and health, especially those who have not yet “discovered their sexual orientation.” Christians are now considered unsafe options for children of sexual abuse or those exhibiting signs of alternative lifestyles.

What implications will this have in the future? How soon may such legislation come to the US? Or is it already here in some areas? I don’t know.

I do know that precedents can be dangerous.

Impediments to In-Home Bible Studies

Every community maintains laws regulating non-profit organizations (NPOs), including churches. Since last September, the laws of Ocean County, California, have come into the spotlight. The catalyst: one couple, the Fromms, has been fined and threatened with repeated citations. (See the story here.) They claim a simple in-home Bible study; the governing officials claim their “Bible study” is actually a church.

The conflict has grown into a law suit to which the online Christian community has responded with venomous fear, loudly proclaiming that the US is attempting to make in-home Bible studies illegal. The state of California, however, asserts that the issue is simply over a lack of compliance by a religious organization. They have stipulated specific zoning concerns and permit requirements. The Fromms have been order to comply or face continued fines, up to $500 per meeting. (Let’s not forget California’s infamous financial deficit. They’ll take whatever money they can get.)

I don’t know that California really cares what the Fromms do in their home, but, again, precedents can be dangerous.

So, here are some questions: What constitutes a church?

Is it simply the common thread of religion? If so, then we better be careful having too many believing friends over for a BBQ.

Is it the size? If so, what is that defining size?

What about the frequency and consistency of meetings? Again, we need definitions here. Once a week? Once a month? What if the group rotates the location of the meetings?

Does the day and time of meetings make a difference? The Fromms host gatherings on Sunday mornings. Perhaps that is why they were “flagged.”

Defining “church” is critical in this case because that delineates the difference between an in-home study (which is not an organization and therefore not subject to non-profit regulations) and a church (which must be registered with the state and must comply with all laws of permit, zoning and taxes).

The Fromms hold regular meetings twice a week (Sundays and Thursdays) that average fifty people. Personally, I see that as a church and not a simple in-home Bible study. As such, I believe they should follow the legal parameters for religious organizations.

What happens when a small group, by definition, evolves into a church?

The Fromms started on Wednesday nights but soon discovered more people could attend on Sunday mornings. They didn’t intend to start a “church.” It just happened. Currently my Bible study has about 20 people on the mailing list, but we’ve never had everyone attend on the same night. Our average number is around ten. But what if we grew? Would we have to move? At what point would we be required to register as an NPO?

Is it only an issue if someone complains?

The government seems to get involved most often for two reasons: they want their cut (money) or voters complain about something. My neighbors have never complained. In fact they’ve never even asked why I have people over every second and fourth Wednesday of each month. In the Fromms’ case, some of their neighbors have written to the city professing support. Other neighbors, at least one home, is not happy. Mrs. Fromm confessed in an interview that they place cones in front of the offended neighbor’s home to prevent their guests from parking there.

I’m torn on this whole issue because …

  1. I agree there should be regulations on regular assemblies, be they religious or not. If my neighbors, for example, hosted 50 people twice a week for any reason, I would likely get annoyed. Especially if their guests consistently took up precious street parking for hours at a time. I would be more than happy for the city to collect fines from them for permission to conduct meetings of that size and frequency.
  2. This is a very slippery slope. At what point does a helpful regulation become a violation of constitutional rights? In this case, the laws target religious freedom, right to assembly and privacy. At what point should the government have control over what happens on citizens’ property?

My not-so-final thoughts: We need a clear, mutually agreeable definition of what constitutes a church. This not the first case like this. Three years ago a similar thing happened less than an hour from my home. In that instance, it was only a group of 15 people. (Read that story here.This is not likely to be the last.

Fortunately, the city council voted unanimously in January to amend their code. (Read more here.) At the time of the Fromms’ first citation, the law applied to any religious gathering of three or more people. They declared those terms vague and archaic and are now working to find more reasonable stipulations that take into consideration many factors, including property size.

Your Turn: What do you think about all of this? How would you define church? What do you feel are the best ways to protect our religious freedoms?

Talk to me!

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