April 15, 2010
Coding Character: Religious Assemblies and Zoning Laws
— Kristen Tobey
Several months ago in Gilbert, Arizona, a city code enforcement official noticed signs advertising church services to be held in private homes and sent a cease-and-desist letter to the pastor of the seven-member Oasis of Truth Church, pursuant to items in the local Land Development Code banning religious assemblies, even “small-scale” ones, in private homes, for reasons of traffic, parking, and building safety. “Religious Assembly uses are not permitted in single family residential structures,” the code has stated since 2006, and in response to queries the pastor was told that there was no distinction between church services and activities such as Bible study or fellowship meetings. Any “Religious Assembly use” is prohibited.
An appeal was filed on behalf of the church by the Alliance Defense Fund, prompting the Town Council to set a date in late March to consider revisions to the code. That date was moved up when local media picked up the story, prompting an outpouring of popular support for the church. A new version of the code is expected to emerge in June that will allow for certain religious gatherings in private homes (according to demarcations as yet unspecified); in the meantime the current code has been suspended. Yet this small Christian group’s battle over zoning raises questions about what purpose such codes are meant to serve, as town officials frame their suspension of the code in particular ways: not in terms of the fact that traffic and safety issues might not pertain to all “Religious Assemblies,” minuscule or large, in the same way; nor in terms of the fallibility of laws and the need to continually revisit them to examine their ongoing relevance; but rather by lauding the character of the group in question.
Since the church’s situation became a news item, Gilbert’s mayor has made public statements affirming the town’s commitment to religious freedom, but such assertions are problematized through their coupling with declarations about the disposition of the Oasis of Truth Church. The mayor concluded after attending the group’s Sunday service, “It’s a wonderful group and they’ll be successful in building their church…They have a great message.” He has repeated that the church evidences the family values that are the “strength” of Gilbert itself. And indeed, on the Oasis of Truth website, family values prevail: The website prominently features introductions to its three pastors, two of them brothers, and their wives and children; it also offers advice on childrearing and provides prompts for family discussions about Bible teachings.
Town officials’ positive words on the church’s behalf seem only appropriate under the circumstances. But framing the reconsideration of codes in terms of the character of the group in question, rather than the safety issues that the regulations ostensibly protect, suggests that the codes also serve monitoring purposes. In drawing attention to this monitoring aspect, the city leaves room for its decision to face difficult questions: An undoubtedly useful reconsideration of zoning codes has been spurred by the case of a group that is being characterized as representative of the moral character of the town itself; but what if it had been another group, one less congenial to the town’s values, that received the cease-and-desist letter?
Monitoring of religious groups is not unimportant, but framing legal decisions in terms of character challenges the notion of equal rights for all citizens. The Oasis of Truth Church – public about its beliefs, transparent about its practices and its aim of shaping believers into moral agents who are good citizens – passes the good neighbor test that seems to have been at play in the unfolding of these events. It will remain to be seen how Gilbert might respond, with regulations about religious meetings in private homes now off the books and, significantly, a reinterpretation of what constitutes a religious assembly still pending, to a group that frightens or offends.
Kristen Tobey, managing editor of Sightings, is a PhD candidate in Anthropology and Sociology of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and a Martin Marty Center Dissertation Fellow