For many Christians, attending Bible studies is a wonderful way to strengthen their faith and socialize with other believers. Some churches think nothing of hosting small group Bible studies at parishioners’ homes.
Unbelievably, one family, Scott and Terri Fetterolf, have been ordered to cease having Bible studies at their beautiful Pennsylvania farm. The Christian couple has even been threatened with fines if they continue hosting group religious activities at their home.
Sewickley Heights Borough, located approximately 15 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has commanded the Fetterolfs to stop hosting Bible studies, worship activities, religious fundraisers, or religious retreats at their 35-acre farm. The Christian couple, and the previous owner, have engaged in religious endeavors with others on the property for decades. According to Todd Starnes, the cease-and-desist order was issued in October of 2017. On July 18, 2018, the Independence Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Fetterolfs in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Committed to advancing Civil Rights, the Independence Law Center is a pro-bono legal group headquartered in Pennsylvania.
According to the lawsuit, the couple was threatened with exorbitant fines of $500 per day in addition to court expenses for hosting Bible studies, hosting meetings where religious songs are sung, conducting religious fundraisers, and hosting religious retreats for seminary students and church leaders at their private property.
“The borough has no business overseeing a group of people reading and discussing a book together on private property — even if that book is the Bible,” attorney Randall Wenger said.
Jeremy Samek, Senior Counsel for the law group representing the Fetterolfs remarked, “Government should not target religious activities for punishment, particularly when similar secular activities are permitted.”
While Borough authorities want to enforce zoning restrictions like those applicable to “places of worship” such as churches and synagogues on the Christian couple’s activities, secular equivalents to these events including parties, book clubs, and political fundraisers aren’t forbidden according to the lawsuit.
Unfortunately, the Fetterolfs case isn’t an isolated incident. In 2016, a homeowners association forbade believers from convening Bible studies and other faith-centered activities in the common areas of the Solera retirement community situated at Kern Canyon in Bakersfield, California. According to One News Now, “Approximately 100 attendees were prohibited from gathering together in their various faith-based meetings because one atheist had a problem with Christians congregating to worship and study God’s Word.” Reportedly, the 100 weekly attendees frequented four separate meetings during the week including two women’s groups, a men’s Bible study, and a Sunday worship service.
The Bible studies and worship service were shut down right before the Thanksgiving holiday in 2016. However, the suspension was lifted at the end of the year after an attendee of the men’s Bible study and worship service filed a lawsuit. Even though the suspension of the religious activities was lifted, the persistent homeowners association maintained it had the legal authority to ban the Christian gatherings. According to Pacific Justice Institute, PJI, which focuses on cases involving religious freedom, “[The California association] continued to insist that it had done nothing wrong and possessed the authority to suspend the groups again at any time, so litigation continued throughout 2017 and early 2018.”
The Sacramento-based law firm argued the homeowners association violated the believers’ constitutional right to exercise and practice their Christian faith. One News Now reported, “Once the homeowners association over the retirement community further examined the rights of Christian members of the community to attend the meetings before the legal proceedings took place, it conceded by surrendering its assault on the attendees’ right to practice their faith on the community’s common grounds.”
A trial was scheduled for May of 2018. However, during a preparatory mediation meeting, the homeowners association agreed to several concessions that will protect the Christians’ religious rights in the future. Regarding the resolution of the case, Brad Dacus, President of PJI, said, “We are thrilled with this tremendous victory on behalf of these courageous senior citizens! This may be the first time a group of residents have taken on their HOA in court to fight for their religious meeting rights – and won.”
Referring to the seniors he represented, Dacus added, “Throughout this case, their faith and dedication have inspired us. They are overcoming physical challenges and disabilities to spread the light in their community, and we couldn’t have been more proud to represent them.”
~ 1776 Christian