Bureaucrats Order PA Couple to Stop Holding Bible Studies in Their Home

P. Gardner Goldsmith | July 25, 2018
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Compare the two modes of behavior. You are on your own property, offering conversation to friends, or offering voluntary, consensual trade of goods and services to friends and neighbors.

Alternatively, you are an unwelcomed trespasser onto another person’s property; you are there to order them to stop their voluntary, consensual and peaceful activity; you tell them they must pay a “fine” for this activity, and you are backed by the potential to send armed men with badges to arrest them if they don’t comply.

Which is the peaceful activity?

In Sewickley Heights, PA, the town bureaucrats appear to have a monumentally difficult time figuring out the answer to that, because one area couple just had to file a lawsuit against the town in order to be able to – get this – resume hosting bible studies, religious retreats, small sales of produce, and tours of their small farm.

On July 18, in the US District Court for Western PA, Harrisburg’s Independence Law Center filed suit against Sewickley Heights Borough on behalf of Scott and Terri Fetterolf, who were ordered in October of last year to cease and desist Bible study groups, religious retreats, tours, and fundraisers on the 35-acre farm they bought in 2003. This would be a farm where the previous owner for decades offered friends and neighbors those same activities, and where the Fetterolf’s entered into the purchase with the specific intent of continuing the tradition.

According to the suit, Sewickley Heights is abusing a zoning code given the intimidating Orwellian title “Ordinance 294”, which prohibits “places of worship” in what the feudal lords of the town label “A-Historical Rural Residential” property. But the concept of a “place of worship” is well known. That would be a building built for the specific purpose of admitting people for regular worship, while the Fetterolfs’ actually live in – ie, they are “residents” of – and use their farm.

Book studies, singing, religious worship, and fundraisers can occur at any residence, argue the Fetterolfs’ attorneys, but those are still primarily residences.

Additionally, the Independence Law Center has found towering double-standards in Sewickley’s vaunted “Code” enforcement, wherein, according to the suit, the town has allowed political fundraisers, bonfires, big gatherings to watch the Pittsburg Steelers, huge graduation parties, live bands, and even Harry Potter study groups on residences, but not religious fundraisers, religious singing, and Bible study on a privately owned farm.

The bureaucrats threatened the couple with a $500 per day fine if they did not end this wanton, corruptively aggressive activity.

Again, who is the aggressor here?

The lawsuit states, in part:

Unless Defendant (Sewickley Heights) is enjoined from continuing to enforce Ordinance 294 against Bible studies, gathering for worship (i.e. singing), retreats, and fundraisers, the Fetterolfs will continue to suffer irreparable injury to their constitutional and statutory rights.

And this clampdown has continued for almost three-quarters of a year, with “hearing” after “hearing” getting nowhere. Again, referring to the suit:

The Notice of Violation/Cease and Desist Order imposed by Sewickley Heights threatens a $500 fine plus costs, including the Borough’s attorney’s fees, for holding Bible studies, religious retreats, times of singing religious songs, or religious fundraisers occurring after October 13, 2017… Accordingly, the Fetterolfs have cancelled all religious activities on their property since October 5, 2017, a span of time exceeding nine months and counting.

This situation is shocking, and attracting national attention. It could also become a nationally important court case if the bureaucrats don’t wise up.

But it is significant for another reason, because it sheds light on the tyranny of zoning codes. The minute details of what the code allows or does not allow are less important than the fundamental principle at stake when looking at zoning in general.

One either recognizes his neighbor’s right to own private property, or one does not. One either offers respect for the rights of his or her neighbor, or one signals that he is willing to infringe on them for his own arbitrary reasons, thus making the concepts of private property and self-ownership null and void, mere artifices or totems to which the politicians will pray, but which the politicians will breach based on their own whim. Zoning sets prior restraints on peace-loving people for the ownership of their own property, and the concept can be applied infinitely, down to regulating what one peacefully says or wears or does inside his own home.

That’s not freedom, and that’s not respectful of the sovereignty of one’s neighbor to live in peace among others.

It’s stunning to imagine a group of taxpayer-funded bureaucrats threatening those said same taxpayers if they don’t stop peaceful activities on their own property, if they don’t conform to the mandates of the bureaucrats and politicians.

But that is what zoning does, every day, be it in Sewickley Heights, or almost every other city or town in the United States.