Not so long ago, local government officials usually agreed that members of churches brought benefit to - or at least didn't harm - their communities with their prayers, Bible studies and evangelistic activities.
But an alarming number of municipalities now take a hostile approach toward Christians exercising their First Amendment freedoms. In various cases around the country, followers of Christ have been threatened, fined and even jailed for such protected liberties as discussing Scripture in a living room or talking about Jesus on a public sidewalk.
In October, the city of Venice, Florida, dropped charges against Shane and Marlene Roessiger, a couple accused of having an unauthorized "house of worship" in their home. Although only six to 10 guests showed up for Friday night prayer and Bible study meetings at the Roessigers, the city contended that the gatherings violated an ordinance requiring houses of worship to be on at least two acres of property.
"This is a trend we're seeing across the country, with local code enforcement going after small religious group meetings in homes," says Kevin T. Snider, chief counsel of the Pacific Justice Institute, which represented the Roessigers.
Snider believes there is underlying ill will by various local governments against people of faith, particularly Christians.
"That animus is usually by one person in code enforcement or on the city council," Snider says. "It used to be that people who were anti-religious kept their views to themselves. Now they feel emboldened."
Venice threatened the Roessigers, who are Pentecostals, with $250 daily fines for holding the meetings. In October, on advice from the city attorney, the Venice Code Enforcement Board voted 6-0 to dismiss all charges and penalties.
AG PASTOR TARGETED
For the past 31 years, on Tuesday and Friday nights, Assemblies of God pastor and evangelist Paul S. Gros has gone to Bourbon Street in New Orleans to share the gospel with revelers. His wife, Mireya, accompanies him many times, and members of various churches, including Vieux Carre Assembly of God, where he has pastored since 2009, also go along.
But a year ago, the city passed a speech ban that prohibited congregating on Bourbon Street "for the purpose of disseminating any social, political or religious message between the hours of sunset and sunrise."
"I suspect someone in city government decided this was cramping the party style, and anything that might hurt the party atmosphere needed to be eliminated," says Joseph E. La Rue, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Gros.
Although the French Quarter pastor shared his faith in Jesus in a nonconfrontational way, in May a city police officer told Gros he could be arrested if he continued evangelizing after dark. So Gros, on the recommendation of ADF, confined street preaching to daylight hours while the organization challenged the law in court. If arrested, Gros could have faced six months behind bars and a $500 fine.
However, La Rue says the law is so outrageous even the liberal American Civil Liberties Union filed suit after ADF did.
In September, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing the city from enforcing the law until its constitutionality is determined. In the meantime, Gros, who is recovering from liver cancer, has returned to evangelizing in the evenings.
Typically, Gros carries a 9-foot cross with 2-inch-tall LED lights containing short, scrolling gospel messages. He also uses a megaphone on occasion in an effort to convince raucous carousers to repent and accept Jesus as their Savior.
"Religious speech is just as important and just as protected as any other type of speech, at any time of the day," La Rue says. "The city of New Orleans has said if you are going to talk about Jesus after dark, you're a criminal. The very idea that government can tell us you can't say 'God bless you' is ridiculous."
While the expanding plethora of local ordinances is problematic, researcher William Jeynes argues that additional laws protecting prayer and Bible reading may be the solution.
"The great danger is that people are coming to the conclusion that our Constitution is subject to varying interpretations and therefore they are restricting religious rights," says Jeynes, a senior fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.
Jeynes, who also is an Assemblies of God evangelist, has been instrumental in ensuring that the Bible is taught statewide in public schools in nine states. He also helped construct a constitutional prayer amendment that 83 percent of Missouri voters approved in August.
The amendment, passed earlier by overwhelming majorities in the Missouri Senate and House, ensures that public school students can pray over their lunch in a cafeteria and read their Bibles during recess or study hall. More broadly, the amendment guarantees the right of citizens - including elected officials - to pray and to acknowledge God in public settings and on public property.
Jeynes sees the recent spate of city officials trying to curtail religious expression as the fallout from the Supreme Court declaring sponsored Bible reading and organized prayer off limits in public schools half a century ago.
Curtailments have accelerated in numerous school districts, so that now students in some places are suspended for uttering, "Praise the Lord," or even for bringing a Bible to school.
"Subsequently, school administrators who are anti-Christian bigots seem to have more leeway to declare certain freedoms as impermissible," Jeynes says. Whether through ignorance or abuse, enough principals and superintendents are engaged in restricting rights to keep most Christian teachers and students intimidated about talking about their faith in public schools, Jeynes says.
"It's amazing how our society protects the rights of people to say four-letter words, but not to utter a five-letter word: Jesus," Jeynes says.
In Phoenix, The Rutherford Institute tangled with officials over distribution of free water by an Assemblies of God member motivated by compassion. Dana Crow-Smith handed out bottled water on a public sidewalk in 112-degree heat in July and engaged willing passersby in conversations about their religious beliefs.
A city official with the Orwellian title of "neighborhood preservation officer" approached Crow-Smith, who attends Deer Valley Worship Center in the suburb of Peoria, and told her she had to possess a $350 mobile vendor's permit to give away water. The Rutherford Institute informed the city that such action violated Crow-Smith's First Amendment right to freely exercise religion.
In October, Phoenix City Council members struck down the ordinance prohibiting distribution of free water in public.
Rutherford Institute founder John W. Whitehead and Jeynes believe there will be increasing numbers of instances limiting liberties unless and until Christians rise up en masse to protest.
"With so many attacks going on simultaneously, the Christian community becomes weary of fighting," Jeynes says.
Regardless of being discouraged or oppressed, Whitehead says Christians don't have the luxury of failing to respond to bullying officials.
"Churches can't be too comfortable to be bothered," Whitehead says. "It's up to churches to tell government to leave these people alone."
Nevertheless, Whitehead is encouraged by the outcome of the Crow-Smith ordeal.
"This victory in Phoenix shows that one person can stand up and change government for the better," Whitehead says. "The democratic process can work, provided that Americans care enough to make their discontent heard."
Author: John W. Kennedy, Pentecostal Evangel