Under changes to the San Juan Capistrano municipal code approved Tuesday night, gatherings similar to Bible studies that drew disputed fines against a local couple will be studied to determine whether they meet the city’s new definition of a church. if so, they will require a conditional use permit.
The City Council gave the first of two approvals necessary to amend the law, agreeing to strike the terms “nonprofit, fraternal and religious” and define “church” as a “legally constituted religious organization for public and family worship of a deity or deities, together with buildings and uses that are accessory thereto and used for the teaching of religious dogma, accessory social functions and one single-family dwelling for use as a minister or caretaker residence.”
The definition includes synagogues, temples, mosques and other buildings used for those purposes. it is based on a definition adopted in 2010 by the city of Rancho Cucamonga, according to a report by Grant Taylor, San Juan Capistrano’s director of development services.
The city has wrangled with a proposed code change the past six months since Chuck and Stephanie Fromm filed a claim contesting $300 in fines they received for hosting large weekly Bible studies in their home. the sessions drew up to 50 people, and a neighbor complained. A code-enforcement officer decided the gatherings constituted an organization requiring a conditional use permit and fined them twice.
The trouble arose over the municipal code’s inclusion of the terms “religious, nonprofit or fraternal.” Under existing city law, any such organization operating in a residential area must apply for a permit. the requirement can be broadly interpreted to include gatherings large or small, frequent or infrequent.
The city planning Commission met about the issue three times and recommended a code amendment that would eliminate those terms and provide a more specific definition of a church.
If officials determine a gathering does not meet the definition of “church” and thus does not require a permit, but determine it significantly affects parking, traffic, trash or noise in a neighborhood, the city will use existing nuisance laws to regulate it.
Chuck Fromm commended the efforts.
“Working with the city … it’s proven that even on a controversial subject we can work together,” he said.
“The proposed change is not perfect,” Councilman Derek Reeve said. “But it’s not perfect because it’s impossible to be perfect when you’re trying to define a church or a religious institution, which is, frankly, something you don’t want a government to do anyway.”
The code on nonprofit, fraternal and religious organizations is duplicated in several area cities, apparently part of a packet of laws adopted by default upon incorporation, according to a staff report.
Councilwoman Laura Freese said there are many city laws that require second looks. “There are land-use codes that need to be amended,” she said.
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