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Home Bible Study Fined, Required To Get Permit

from the September 27, 2011 eNews issue

A general practitioner in the coastal British town of Margate has been brought before the General Medical Council (GMC) for suggesting to a patient that Jesus could give him comfort and strength. Across the world in San Juan Capistrano, California, a home Bible study group has been told the home owners will be fined $500 per meeting unless the group obtains a Conditional Use Permit. Freedom of religion may not be directly under attack in most Western countries, but it can still be painfully taken hostage by ordinances and political correctness.

Margate, Kent:
Dr. Richard Scott spoke about religious matters with a 24-year-old patient in August 2010, much to the chagrin of the patient's mother. The patient himself continued to receive treatment under Dr. Scott at the Bethesda Medical Centre, a Christian-oriented practice in Margate. The mother, however, filed a complaint against Dr. Scott, accusing him of pushing religion on her son.

The medical center's page on the NHS Choices website states that the doctors are all practicing Christians who are interested in talking about their faith with patients, saying, "The Partners feel that the offer of talking to you on spiritual matters is of great benefit. If you do not wish this, that is your right and will not affect your medical care. Please tell the doctor (or drop a note to the Practice Manager) if you do not wish to speak on matters of faith."

The GMC forbids doctors to impose their personal beliefs on patients and religious questions are to be handled in a "sensitive and appropriate" manner. Paul Ozin for the GMC told the committee, "A line was crossed because Dr. Scott expressed his personal religious belief to a person who he knew as a vulnerable patient in a way that was plainly liable to cause the patient distress."

Dr. Scott holds that his conversation with the patient was appropriate and fell under GMC guidelines. He said he did not belittle the patient or engage in a persistent religious discussion as claimed, nor did he consider the 24-year-old man to be a "vulnerable" patient. Dr. Scott, a former medical missionary, describes the conversation as a "consensual discussion between two adults."

Simon Clavert of The Christian Institute said, "Are we really getting to a position where Christians are not allowed to speak about their faith at all in the workplace?"

The GMC Investigation Committee could issue Dr. Scott an official warning, blemishing his otherwise excellent professional record. The doctor intends to appeal the censure, but has been told he could be "struck off" (fired) if he does so.

San Juan Capistrano, California:
The City of San Juan Capistrano has fined residents Chuck and Stephanie Fromm $300 for holding regular Bible study meetings at their large home on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings without a Conditional Use Permit (CUP), a permit required for churches and other nonprofit organizations. The Fromms were told that meetings of more than three people require a CUP, and they have been threatened with a$500 fine per meeting if they continue to gather before they obtain the permit.

The Fromms have been accused of violating section 9-3.301 of the Capistrano Municipal Code which states that "religious, fraternal, or nonprofit" organizations are not permitted in residential neighborhoods without a CUP.

Brad Dacus, an attorney from the Pacific Justice Institute representing the Fromms, notes that the word "fraternal" is vague and could be construed to include groups who meet each week to watch Monday Night football. And why not? From the city's point of view, what is the difference between people gathering regularly to watch football or people gathering regularly to read the Bible together?

Obtaining the permit in question is not a simple matter. The Pacific Justice Institute has represented churches in the past who were forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in the effort to acquire a CUP, getting things like traffic and engineering studies and seismic retrofits done. Public hearings are required, and, if granted, the CUP can still come with all manner of restrictions.

The Fromms have denied any code violation, in any case. They are not affiliated with any church, they say, nor are they starting one. They are also not causing any known public disturbance.  Between 20 and 50 people gather for the Bible studies, but many carpool, so there are fewer cars than people. The Fromms have a large home down a long driveway with six empty acres on the other side of them. There is no trouble with parking, and they do not have loud music at the meetings. In fact, except for one disgruntled neighbor, the neighborhood has been supportive of them, and some neighbors have even written letters on the Fromms' behalf.

"We have a neighbor that's cross at us and contacted the zoning department," said Chuck Fromm. "It feels sort of like a snitch system. There's no due process. It's arbitrary. We're reasonable, rational people, but we don't have a reasonable, rational system."

Dacus said, "It's an overabuse of authority and discretion for any local government to say a family like the Fromms must pay money to the city and get their prior consent to engage in such a fundamentally traditional use of their own home."

Government has an important job to do in maintaining peace and security for a people, whether it operates as a legal body or an oversight committee. We don't want crowds of people jamming a cul-de-sac with cars every Sunday morning, disturbing everybody around them. There's a place for zoning laws. However, there's an important balance that needs to be made between protection and meddling, between offering security and order and infringing on the fundamental rights of religion and speech and assembly. Both the Fromms and Dr. Scott are appealing to higher authorities to address the breaches of their essential freedoms, which is important in order to protect others from having their liberties violated as well.


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