October 28, 2020

What’s Really Going On In San Diego?

UPDATE: The county backs down.

A few years ago, I posted a story here at IM about a church that refused to do a funeral for a guy, and it was pitched in the media as a mean church refusing to do the funeral of a homosexual. I posted, ranted…..and then found out a few more facts.

The story was quite different than my first impression. Of course, the beauty of the internet is you don’t have to know anything to post in the blogosphere. Just how to type. Not how to check sources, get perspective, etc.

So I’ve been waiting to hear the other side of the San Diego Bible Study story. If you haven’t heard this one, you can find the story here at San Diego Channel 10. Check the videos.

Let me suggest that you google the phrase “San Diego Bible Study” and note the pages and pages of Christians and conservatives turning this story into one of the biggest viral news stories of the year. And please note the absence of response from the city of San Diego.

Please note who spoke first. Who described the “interrogation.” Who went to a law and policy center. Note how this is being pitched:

Christians are being persecuted.
Home Bible studies are being fined or stopped.
Of course, this is Obama’s America.
The end is near. (You may need to get into the comments for that one.)

Now, go back to the Channel 10 link I gave you, where you will find, under the video tab, the one source of a response from the county. Please let that load- it may take a minute- and listen.

Now, what do we have?

a) A cul de sac neighborhood
b) A parking issue (Parking was filling up the cul de sac)
c) Complaint(s) from neighbors
d) Some previous history

Before we go much further, please raise your hand if you have ever complained (or considered complaining) to your local government about anything going on in your neighborhood. Being a resident of Ky, let me give you some typical complaints: Noise at night. Parties. Parking in yards. Loud music. Trespassing. Parking in front of houses. Loud kids. Trash in yards. Cars up on blocks. Non-functioning cars in the yard. (Hey, this is Ky.)

In other words, many of us are familiar with the concept of the “angry neighbor.” And if you know the suburbs, you may be familiar with the “territorial neighbor” who is irritable over issues of parking.

Please note that now we have something else: likely neighbor issues.

Enter one Brian Auten from the Boar’s Head Tavern, and this comment:

Re: parking and home Bible studies. I have no trouble envisioning this type of behavior from an overzealous zoning commissioner; however, I also wonder (a) how well the pastor and his wife know their neighbors; (b) if the idea for weekly home Bible study was run past the neighbors beforehand (”Hey, we’re thinking of having a Bible study at our house. Naturally, you’re invited. We also wanted to check in with you about it. Do you have any concerns? There could be possible parking issues on those evenings. How do you feel about that? Are there certain evenings that would work better for you”); and (c) did the pastor and his wife pursue other options (i.e. rotation of homes) before going to the press and the Western Center for Law and Policy? Granted, they could have Captain Misanthrope and his wife Shrill as neighbors and it wouldn’t have mattered a bit what they did, but I’m curious as to the general neighbor-to-neighbor dynamics in operation here. Does this stem from viewing home-based Bible studies in this way vs. as neighborhood mission stations?

OK…here’s my thoughts.

1) I think the county official who visited this pastor was likely the sort of jerk zoning gestapo that delights in power and self-importance. If he asked “Do you say amen?” then he’s clearly being provocative. I’ll wager he (or she) is going to be in trouble.

2) A home Bible study ought to be protected by every law on the books. It’s inexcusable that anyone having a Bible study should worry about government harassment in America. If that’s the issue, then I hope Pastor Jones wins $10 million in damages.

3) Parking is another issue. Like it or not. It’s an issue no matter what the meeting is in the home. Regular use of large amounts of neighborhood parking- especially without prior arrangement and permission from neighbors- will create resentment and complaint.

4) Police and fire access are issues. Remember when they used to give tickets for parking in front of a fire hydrant? It didn’t matter if you were a pastor on call.

5) This is quite likely about how Christians are perceived and how Christians have treated their neighbors. In many areas in America, people don’t want churches or gatherings of Christians in their neighborhoods. Yes, they have the right to gather, but where a community has recourse through zoning or other laws, there are people who will use those. More and more churches are finding out they are not welcome in the suburbs.

6) Christians: ask yourself if you are capable of complaining to the zoning commission if a large group of atheists or Muslims are parking in front of your house because of a regular neighborhood meeting. Be honest.

7) Somewhere between the stories and versions of stories told by the lawyers and the offended is the truth. It’s not the propaganda Christian and conservative media are pumping out. And it’s not the insanity of the zoning officer wanting $10,000 in fees. It’s something more complex; something about how Christians are perceived and how we relate to unbelievers.

8] Stop the whining. Stop the insisting on rights. Stop going to legal foundations. GO TALK TO YOUR NEIGHBORS. Work this out. Show something practical and constructive. Would Jesus be shouting about Obama is shutting down Bible studies? Get a grip.

Your thoughts- appropriately and intelligently expressed are welcome. If you are going to use the tone of some of the Christians in the comment threads I’ve read on this, we won’t have a discussion at all.


  1. I didn’t read any of the other comments. I’ve not read any other blog posts about this. I have read two news articles, but I’m not sure if either of them are the one you linked to.

    My first thought when I first read about it was “How many cars are coming to this house?”. If I were a neighbor, I might be annoyed.

    I once went to a church picnic at a pastor’s house. He had everybody park at an elementary school down the block. People dropped off the kids and coolers and moved their cars away from the house. Volunteers shuttled people to and from the lot. These folks can do similarly in order to keep the peace.

  2. Wayne B. says

    If worst comes to worse, they’ll have to have Bible study in church.

  3. If the parking is the problem, that’s one thing, but when a city or county official person comes to your door and asks if you are praying there, wouldn’t we all be a bit upset?

    I figured the right wing shows would grab this, but I don’t know. It still sounds like money grabbing tactics to me. (Yes, I live in California….and more of this kind of grab for dollars will be coming!)

  4. It seems much of the discussion here is about parking and safety. But, as was mentioned earlier on, no parking citations were issued.

    Re: being neighborly. Is it possible whoever complained is one of those people who are never happy, no matter what you do? I’ve had a few neighbors like that over the years.

  5. I have lived in San Diego all my life – in fact, my family has been here since 1901. The County (and the City of San Diego, for that matter) are pretty notorious for their actions against religious groups, mostly Christians ones. I have noticed a definite bias against churches in San Diego County.

    One recent example is seen in the little town next to mine, Guatay, CA, whose only church was closed by the San Diego County because the original permit was for a bar rather than a church. However, this church has been meeting in the building for over 20 years. This news story only went as far as San Diego itself, but this story and several other similar ones may explain why the pastor jumped right over to defending the Bible study’s right to assemble. See story: http://www.wnd.com/index.php/index.php?pageId=82230 and http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/metro/20081120-9999-1m20guatay.html

    Yes, permits may be needed in the case of the Guatay Christian Fellowship, but those permits may end up in excess of $30,000 for the *rental* of a building with no parking issues at all in a town of fewer than 800 people, plus possible environmental impact reports for all the cars parked on an asphalt lot. It’s the only church in the town of Guatay and one of only five churches in a fifteen-mile radius. Guatay is a notoriously poor area – the vast majority of the residents live in the two mobile home parks in the town. So many of us took the County’s strong-arm tactics in closing down this church for six months until forced by the courts to allow its reopening as anti-Christian sentiment.

    It’s a rather sad thing, but County officials here quite often carry *huge* chips on their shoulders and they would rather threaten than work out issues with the citizens. This recent case with the Bible study in Bonita (in a rural area, BTW) concerned a gathering that has been going on for five years. It was *not* a new situation. Perhaps the trouble started when neighbors moved into the cul de sac after the study was established. Yes, it would have been best to deal directly neighbor-to-neighbor, but some people are much too eager to call the County rather than talk to their neighbors.

    In addition to apparent anti-church sentiment, I think this situation may be a case of overzealous County officials trying to get money for the permit (and I can tell you far too many horror stories about getting permits in this county for *anything*!). Even fire victims have been ripped off by the County in getting permits for rebuilding their homes, even though the County promised to “expedite” their plans, as my husband, a home designer who worked with dozens of fire victims, can attest first-hand.

    So although I sympathize with the neighbors, I can understand the over-reaction on the part of the pastor because of past history churches have had with the County of San Diego and the County’s permit-crazy attitude.

    Just a little back-country San Diego background —

    Pine Valley, CA
    San Diego County

  6. If people look at the world this way (Christians are always being persecuted in the US), does the expulsion of a female fan from a Texas Rangers game for wearing a “Yankees Suck” t-shirt constitute a “victory?” The clip that I saw noted that the Rangers security people viewed the saying as obscene. So, do we end the week even?

    I just can’t wait for the next egregious example of how Christians in the US are being persecuted. Christians in Iraq, Indonesia, Somalia, etc. just don’t know how good they have it. They probably wouldn’t last a week in San Diego.

  7. Tom Rightmyer says

    We had a similar situation in Asheville, NC, when two young women opened a ministry with the homeless in a rented residence across the street from the YWCA. They put a six foot cross in the yard, let 6 homeless women sleep in three of the bedrooms, had an open kitchen, and held services Sunday mornings – all without making any effort to communicate with the city government or with the other churches in the city. Someone finally checked the city zoning code and found that regular religious services in a residential area require a permit, and there are restrictions on the number of unrelated adults who can live in a house. The ministry lasted for about 6 months and folded when the two founders fell out with each other. I think that some effort to cooperate with others might have helped.

  8. This is a great post because it illustrates two key principals.

    First – Don’t believe anything you hear (and only half of what you see – bonus points for the source of that quote). The press is here to attract eyeballs, sell advertising, win a prize – pretty much like all business. Even if they are accurate in what they do report, it doesn’t mean they are reporting all of the information. Don’t make final judgments based on reporting, especially from a single source – or the same source repeated through out the blogosphere like drums on a warpath

    Second, non-lawyers shouldn’t play lawyer. As an expert witness (but not a lawyer) in cases like this, let me assure you unless you practice law in this area, you don’t understand the full intricacies of the law. Even with my experience I would not state a “legal” opinion based on the information available to us. Don’t make legal pronouncements if you don’t have the background – and reading about it doesn’t make you an expert

  9. A few days ago when I first read this story, I remarked to someone else (via email):

    The writers of the stories that I have seen about this tried to approach the county, and the representative that they spoke to expressed a bit of surprise but said she had to get back to them. This is standard government code for: “One of my employees is nuts, but I have to figure out how nuts and also a way to spin this so that it doesn’t look like I’m an incompetent leader that I would employ the afore-mentioned nut.”

    So then we have this little gem in the channel 10 story: “Obviously, I wasn’t there, so I can’t tell you exactly what was said. However, what our officer was trying to do is establish what the use is so that we know what regulations to actually utilize,” explained Chandra Wallar of the county’s land use and environment group.

    And there, ladies and gentlemen, is the afore-mentioned spin. For my next trick…

  10. Blocking access for emergency vehicles? In a cul de sac? Are they parking their cars in a line across the entrance of the cul de sac? Otherwise I’m at a loss as to how an ambulance couldn’t get close enough to any house in a cul de sac to do what it needs to do.

    And even if they were parking in some bizarre fashion that blocked access, why not call the police? Why would zoning enter into the question?

    And while I’m all in favor of Christians being good neighbors, we’re talking about 15 people. That means a maximum of 15 cars (probably far fewer) parking in legal parking spots once a week. Is this really worth all the fuss? We need to do our part as Christians, but it seems like it’s a valid time to call shenanigans.

  11. what about carpooling to the prayer group?

  12. I remember the funeral story Michael, and how I wrote you and said you didn’t have all the facts.
    I never told you I was in touch with people involved on both ‘sides’.

    You were gracious to my rebuke, fair and quick to show grace, and I will never forgot how you responded.

    Your choice that day stuck with me more than anything you’ve ever written.

  13. no one
    sees the whole picture,
    and we all see in a human, and worldly way.

    believers know this
    and that is why we are to follow Jesus.

    easier said than done. right?

  14. TypoPanther says

    I find this well fitting with the passage I’m studying in my class this week. We are mainly looking at 1 Corinthians 9:7-12a, along with examining the rest of the surrounding context (1 Corinthians 8-10). The main point of this section is that while we might have the right to do something (whether it’s spiritually or legally really) but it is not always best to exercise that right. It can cause others to stumble if we do, or hamper the transmission of the Gospel.

    That being said, we shouldn’t just take it when our rights are threatened, but we definitely need to think about our motivation in how we are responding.

  15. For today’s update on the story by the San Diego Union Tribune, see their website at signonsandiego(dot)com.

  16. #8

    I was surprised I actually had to scroll down 5 posts on the news site before ACORN was mentioned.

    My motto is that if things don’t make sense, you don’t know the whole story. And sometimes we never know the whole story.

  17. Great post on yet another red herring thrown out by the religious right and their willing accomplices in the “conservative media.” I saw this on my daily check of the right wing fringe at World Net Daily. It was their banner headline when I saw it. Some guy in a blog called San Diego County the “People’s Republic of San Diego.” Peace, Steve+

  18. MAJ Rowe says

    #5 and #8 are spot on. What I want to know is how many of the anti-evangelical smart a** bloggers who wrote in with some derogatory remark about those zealous to find an offense against Christians understand that there are no perfect Christians and making derogatory remarks about them or any other group is gossip and that is sin.

    1 Timothy 5:13 states, “Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.”

    Would it proper to replace “house” with “blog”?

    Your rants are no worse than their rants. How well do you know your neighbor? How often do have casual conversation, show concern, etc?

  19. Interestingly, this news story struck a cord with me as a pastor. Why? Because in trying to help another churches start home Bible Studies, cell groups, and home churches in some of the areas where fellow churches are located we have met the same county, city, and community hassle. They went door-to-door handing out fliers and answering any questions. They went to the county, the local boards, neighborhood associations, and city… and guess what? Everything was fine until one neighbor complained.

    Then all of sudden they needed parking permits, county codes might be broken, they might need to get a zoning permit, a building use permit. Then came the questions: Why were they meeting together? What kind of organization was this? What materials did they use in the study? Were children adequately taken care of? Do you have the proper childcare certification? Are you exceeding fire codes? Each concern was patiently answered and explained, and they went back to the county, the neighborhood association, to each neighbor — even the one who complained and would not admit he did — and… it turned out that no zoning laws were being broken, no permits were needed, and only one neighbor complained. And guess why they complained? They did not want “Bible Thumpers” (his words) “in my neighborhood upsetting my children.” Huh? It took over a year of hassles to finally get to the truth from the County. And some actual fees were paid that did not need to be and yet were never refunded. That was several years ago and the Bible Studies are now going on all over the area.

    There are neighborhoods and suburbs in our area that actually have written in their neighborhood association codes that no Bible studies or home churches can be done in homes in their areas. Some housing tracts even restrict where churches can be built.

    Just so you know…

  20. Greg Long says

    From “County Won’t Force Permit on Bible Study Leaders” (http://www3.signonsandiego.com/stories/2009/may/30/1n30bible00100-county-wont-force-permit-bible-stud/?metro&zIndex=108046)

    Barraged by hundreds of complaints, San Diego County officials backed down yesterday from their enforcement.

    “No one respects the right to free religious expression more than I do, and no one would find the infringement of such rights more abhorrent,” county Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard said in a statement.

    Chandra Wallar, the county’s general manager of land use and environment, said the county has re-examined the situation and decided that the Joneses don’t need a permit after all.

    Religious assembly, under the county land-use code, is defined as “religious services involving public assembly such as customarily occurs in synagogues, temples, and churches.”

    Wallar said that definition, which doesn’t spell out specific thresholds on when a religious gathering becomes a religious assembly, probably needs to be clarified and that more training may be warranted for code enforcement officers.

    She said the county was not targeting the Joneses because they were exercising their religion, but rather it was trying to address parking and traffic issues.

    “We’ve advised the pastor he has the authority to continue to hold his meetings just as he’s held them,” Wallar said. “My hope is we will be able to resolve the traffic concerns.”

    Wallar said the person who filed the complaint alleged that Bible study was drawing 30 to 40 cars.

    In an interview yesterday, the pastor said at most, there are six additional cars on Bible study day. Jones, pastor of South Bay Community Church in National City, said he has visitors park in a lot that he owns beside his house.

    “We’re in trouble if they are going to go with a parking issue, because that means that thousands of people in Bible study groups could be cited for a parking violation,” Jones said.

    “What about people who gather to play Texas Hold ‘Em, Mommy and Me, ‘Monday Night Football,’ Boy Scouts, Alcoholics Anonymous? Everyone has a right as a homeowner to the quiet enjoyment of their property. They’re trying to take that away. We’re not going to let it go.”

    Constitutional law scholars say that the county can impose land-use restrictions on religious gatherings, as long as they are not unreasonable or discriminatory.

    “If people can get together weekly to read books or discuss books or play bridge, if those are OK, there would be a constitutional issue involved in singling out, among other things, religion as a forbidden thing,” said Larry Alexander, constitutional law professor at the University of San Diego.

    Dean Broyles, president of the Western Center for Law & Policy, a nonprofit organization in Escondido that supports religious liberty, is representing the Joneses. He said traffic issues were not raised when the code enforcement officer first visited the Joneses in response to the complaint. The warning itself does not mention traffic or parking problems.

    “Even though the county is saying it’s about traffic and parking, it’s a fake issue. It’s a fabricated issue,” Broyles said.

    According to Broyles, the code enforcement officer asked a series of pointed questions during her visit with the Joneses – questions such as, “Do you sing?” “Do you say ‘amen?’ ” “Do you say ‘praise the Lord?’ ”

    Wallar said the county is investigating what questions were asked and in what context. She said a code enforcement officer does have to ask questions about how a place is being used to determine what land-use codes are applicable.

    “Our county simply does not tolerate our employee straying outside what the appropriate questions are,” Wallar said.

    Ekard, the top county executive, emphasized in his statement that he would get to the bottom of the matter.

    “Should I find that county staff at any level acted in a heavy-handed way; did anything inappropriate under the circumstances; or that a change or revision to our processes and procedures is warranted, I will take appropriate action immediately,” he said.

  21. #8 talking to the neighbor is a great idea, but it won’t make a difference at this point. Once a government agency has investigated and issued a finding of (in their opinion) zoning non-compliance, they cannot ignore it even if the neighbor withdraws his complaint… otherwise, they would be weakening zoning enforcement on a wide variety of issues through out the city. The bell cannot be un-rung. It must resolve through the legal processes established for land use.

    I have a friend who established a no-cost, after-school tutoring program in his backyard, as part of an inner-city ministry. Technically, the zoning code classified it as day-care, a use that was not allowed in his zone. The city was sympathetic and said that as long as no complaints were received, they could look the other way. This worked for about 5 years, then a neighbor complained about the traffic. The city reluctantly shut down the program.

  22. Preach it, brother. Time for people to use their Christianity to build bridges instead of using it as a leg to stand on.

  23. Interesting thoughts… thanks for the clarification.

    I suppose that the key issue is whether or not the group was treated differently because they were a religious group. Probably not, but not something that we’ll know.

  24. duane dunham says

    For years I have been attending to see and/or officiate high school sports. Often the near neighbors are inundated with cars parked at curbs, cul de sacs, etc. for the games. I have not heard of any serious complaints by them. But the difference seems to be that these events are seasonal, not every week forever, so maybe alternating homes is best answer if #8 fails.

  25. Kenny Johnson says