Ariz. Town Bans Church from In-Home Meetings

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Members of a small Arizona church are fighting to continue holding Bible studies in their homes after a city ordinance banned them from doing so.

Officials in the town of Gilbert, Ariz., shut down the Oasis of Truth Church meetings after a code worker spotted signs in the neighborhood inviting people to worship.

Only seven people attend the services and no neighbors have complained, but officials said the Bible studies and other events violate Gilbert's Land Development Code. A letter to the church said the ban even applies to potluck dinners.

"Under this code, if you meet once in your house with two people and it's a religious assembly that's a violation of the code," said Alliance Defense Fund senior counsel David Napier.

The Christian legal group filed an appeal on behalf of the church. ADF lawyers say the code is vague and violates religious freedom.

Oasis of Truth Church was launched in 2009 with a congregation of seven adult members and four children. Members began meeting at Pastor Joe Sutherland's home and then rotated houses three times a week for services. Attendance never exceeded more than 10 adults and the driveway usually accomodates all but one of their cars.

"We hope that the city of Gilbert will recognize that this is simply a bad law on the books, and they take it and repeal it or rewrite it or do something to protect people's rights in their own home to practice their own faith," Napier added.

The code has existed since 2005, but city leaders admit it needs adjusting. Issues will go before the town council March 23.

"Gilbert's Vice Mayor [Linda Abbott] says she believes it will repeal the code," Napier said.

Church members are currently holding Sunday services at a local school, but because of the cost of renting the space the meetings are now limited to once a week.

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