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Opinion

Virginia county takes aim at home Bible studies, freedom of assembly

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Opinion,Virginia,Op-Eds,First Amendment,Freedom of Religion,Freedom of Assembly,Civil Rights

A new Fairfax County, Va., zoning proposal takes direct aim at the right to assemble in the privacy of one’s own home.

This proposed “Group Assembly in Residential Dwellings” zoning ordinance amendment not only poses a grave and fundamental violation of the U.S. Constitution but smacks of the worst type of government overreach.

The ordinance would limit the number of people one could have in their home to 49 a day, and to exceed that limit more than 3 times in any 40-day period would be a violation of law.

I never imagined hosting a Bible study in my home could one day be a violation of the law, but that’s exactly what this proposal could do.

On a recent Wednesday night, I joined dozens of other concerned residents of the county at one of three planned Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ community meetings to voice our outrage about this proposal.

I explained how the proposed amendment would violate the right to free speech, the right to religious expression, and the right to freedom of assembly.

The Supreme Court has specifically held that it would be a direct violation of the Constitution for an ordinance “to make criminal the exercise of the right of assembly simply because its exercise may be ‘annoying' to some people.”

That’s precisely what the proposed ordinance aims to do.

It limits the rights of the Fairfax residents to peaceably assemble in their own homes, to hold Bible studies there, and conduct many other lawful activities.

It not only violates the U.S. Constitution, it violates Virginia’s religious freedom statue by substantially burdening an individual’s religious right to hold a Bible study in their own home if it exceeds a certain number of participants.

In fact, the explanation for this proposal on Fairfax County's website specifically denotes “religious meetings” as one of the intended targets of this ordinance.

The supposed need for the proposed amendment is to combat “parking, noise, and other concerns,” yet none of these issues are addressed by the ordinance.

The county has plenty of tools in its arsenal to combat any actual problem without violating the constitutional rights of its citizenry.

As I explained to the county officials, there are numerous ordinances on the books governing parking, noise, trespassing, and property damage.

To limit the number of people allowed to visit a home would be the same as if the county were to address obnoxiously loud music by banning playing the radio altogether in one’s home. It’s that absurd.

It’s been reported that out of the millions of peaceful gatherings that occur in Virginia’s most populous county, there were only six complaints of problematic, large gatherings over the last year.

This ordinance would not only hamper Bible studies, but birthday parties, community block parties, realtors’ open houses, having people over to watch the big game, and so much more.

As one resident complained, being from a large family, just gathering with his extended family for Sunday dinner would suddenly be illegal.

It opens up the county to needless litigation, at taxpayer expense, over a perceived problem that could be solved in less intrusive ways.

This proposed ordinance is just more needless regulation to resolve a nonexistent problem and make violators out of otherwise law-abiding citizens.

Thankfully, at least one member of the board, Pat Herrity, has raised the alarm on this issue, concerned about the legal pitfalls of such an ordinance.

Hopefully, the entire board will heed the opinions expressed by county residents and quash this absurd and blatantly unconstitutional assault on our rights.

Matthew Clark is a resident of Fairfax County, Va., and associate counsel for government affairs and media advocacy with the American Center for Law and Justice.
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