Two months ago, Gilbert faced the wrath of religious groups from across the globe after a little-known provision in the zoning code came to light.
The code prohibited religious groups from meeting in private homes, and a code-compliance officer had ordered a local church group with seven adult members to cease worship inside the home of its pastor.
On Tuesday night, the Town Council gave final approval to an amendment that protects such groups’ religious freedom.
“It cures the problem,” said Douglas Napier, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale-based religious legal organization. The group had represented the Oasis of Truth Church in challenging the original code.
The zoning-code amendment takes effect June 4 and removes restrictions on “religious assemblies” in single-family houses and instead places standard regulations on “places of worship,” such as a church, synagogue or mosque.
“Place of worship” is formally defined as a “permanently-located building used for religious worship.” Those buildings would still be subject to zoning requirements, such as parking and safety regulations.
The new definition does not include single-family residences, and the town will not regulate group meetings within private homes.
Daniel Blomberg, litigation counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, had said the code constituted religious discrimination because it singled out faith groups while not restricting in-home meetings for Boy Scouts and Monday Night Football parties.
When the Town Council was made aware of the restriction earlier this year, it ordered town officials to cease enforcement of the code. But it wasn’t until the issue gained international attention in early March that the council moved more swiftly to amend the zoning code.
Numerous e-mails poured into council members’ in-boxes, and some included strong language that Councilman Les Presmyk denounced as “shameful.”
The council then held a special meeting on March 22 to initiate the amendment.
“We are very pleased that the [town] of Gilbert has responded so promptly,” Napier said. “This opens the way for people to enjoy their homes for religious practices.”