Local zoning laws are also used against private individuals seeking to conduct Bible studies and prayer meetings within the confines of their homes, even though zoning authorities normally exercise no such restrictions on non-religious meetings. Art and Norma Ellison of Marietta, Georgia, regularly hosted prayer meetings at their home on Friday evenings for six to eight people. Most of the attendees parked in the Ellisons' driveway and the meetings were neither noisy nor disruptive. The City and Planning Department sent a letter to the couple informing them they were violating the zoning code by operating a church in a residential neighborhood and gave them ten days to discontinue their meetings.
A nearly identical situation arose in Onalaska, Wisconsin, when the city zoning authority threatened to shut down a Bible study for five college students in the home of Richard and Audrey Gilmore. Similarly, the zoning board of Denver, Colorado, told David and Diane Reiter that they would have to cut back their weekly Bible study to a monthly meeting. Attorney Jay Sekulow, representing the Reiters, said city officials made it clear to the Reiters that if they were holding a weekly book club meeting, instead of Bible studies, there would be no problem, which revealed an overt hostility to the faithbased activity. The city finally agreed to reverse itself, recognizing that its order was in violation of the couple's constitutional rights.
As a final example, I personally received an e-mail from a pastor of a small Baptist church in a rural lake community in northeastern Arkansas, who told me his church had decided to locate there, because there were no churches within the city limits. The e-mail began, "Persecution of the Christian church is alive and well even within smaller communities in our great nation." The pastor related that the church was excited about the prospects of reaching many people in the community with the Gospel. They had difficulty finding available land to purchase, so they looked for rental property. They found a building within the city limits and asked the city council for permission to renovate it for church purposes, and the council agreed.
They continued their search for property to purchase and eventually located "the perfect spot." They applied for a zoning variance, and the council approved it on the condition that the church submit detailed construction plans for approval. Based on that assurance, the church made arrangements to close on the property. But a petition began to circulate urging the council to reject the church's authority to build and to forbid it from holding church services within the city limits on its rental property. As this book was going to press, the pastor informed me that the city is still resisting the church's efforts. But, he added, "We plan on standing firm since we feel our constitutional rights to free assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion are under assault. Just thought you might be interested in another example of how Christians are being persecuted in the land of the not so free."
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