Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Banning of Residential Religion

Two California homeowners have been fined multiple times in recent months for holding religious meetings within their home which are in violation of a local ordinance. The ordinance in question requires individuals to obtain a 'conditional use permit' in order to have religious, fraternal, or non-profit group meetings in residential neighborhoods. Up to fifty people would meet twice a week at a private home, and this practice has been declared to be in violation of zoning codes as covered by the ordinance. The homeowners who are the organizers of the meetings are challenging this ordinance in court.

The main issue in this dispute concerns the religious free exercise rights of the residential homeowners. They are attempting to practice their religion as they see fit and are not infringing on anyone else's constitutional rights. The additional people at these meetings are not being loud or inconveniencing the neighborhood in any way. Even so, the local ordinance holds that any religious meeting, regardless of the number of participants, is not allowed in residential neighborhoods. The city manager believes that the meetings have transformed the residential home into a place of public assembly in violation of local ordinances. Establishment is not an issue in this case because the ordinance passes the Lemon Test by having a secular purpose, its primary effect does not advance or inhibit religion, and there is no excessive entanglement. The ordinance has the primary purpose of maintaining the desirable qualities of residential neighborhoods and treats religious meetings the same as any other group meeting.

The ordinance in question directly restricts the way in which citizens can exercise their religious beliefs within private homes as is their constitutional right. As discussed in Reynolds v. US (1879), many actions typically allowed can be restricted in order to protect compelling state interests such as maintaining peace and order within our society. The city manager in the ongoing California case stated that the meetings "erode the policy of preserving the spacious, low-density residential character of the property and neighborhood." While protecting the desirable qualities of residentially zoned areas is important, this goal does not rise to the level of a compelling state interest. Birthday parties or other social gatherings which would not be restricted under this ordinance would in all likelihood disrupt the serenity of residential neighborhoods much more than group meetings held within one's home. The California homeowners did not inconvenience the neighborhood due to the ample parking space available as well as the unobtrusiveness of their actions. Additionally, even if one elevated this interest to the level of a compelling state interest, the argument could be made that the meetings in question do not hinder this interest.

Supporters of the ordinance may look to Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (1990) for legal support. The decision written by Justice Scalia for the 6-3 majority held that laws which are valid regarding general practices cannot be justifiably violated based solely on religious beliefs. In this case, laws prohibiting the use of the hallucinogen peyote were determined to override religious beliefs supporting the ingestion of peyote. The majority opinion discussed how a contrary ruling would place religiously motivated actions beyond the reach of criminal law. The neutrality and general applicability of the peyote law was an important factor which influenced the majority decision written by Justice Scalia. Justice O'Connor's concurring opinion focused on the impact of the respondents' actions on the compelling government interest of preventing harm caused by peyote consumption.

While the ordinance prohibiting residential religious gatherings is both neutral between religions and generally applicable, Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (1990) should not be used in support of the ordinance. The level of the state interest being discussed is much more compelling in Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (1990) while the state interest being discussed in California may not even be undermined by the gatherings in question. A ruling in favor of the homeowners would not inappropriately place religious actions beyond the reach of criminal law nor protect any compelling state interest as was a concern in Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (1990). Such a ruling would instead provide free exercise rights to individuals attempting to practice their religion as they desire within the privacy of their homes without infringing on the rights of anyone else. This ordinance directly violates the free exercise clause of the Constitution by mandating how individuals can practice religion within their homes.

1 comment:

Christopher J. said...

I agree with Harry wholeheartedly that the ordinance in question violates the free exercise rights of the bible studiers. The citations given to the homeowners make no mention of there being an illegal number of people at the house at any given time, nor has the city shown that the bible study has impeded traffic, public safety, or anything else that there is a compelling state interest to protect. This issue amounts to little more than religious discrimination.