by Bill Noles Jr.
Can a Bible study held in a home be a violation of local law? When does a home prayer meeting become a church? These are questions being asked of city and county officials across America. Atheist and non-Christian neighbors and neighborhood groups have filed complaints citing violations of zoning laws.
Recently in Venice, FL, a code enforcement officer cited a local family for having an unauthorized “house of worship” in their home. A city ordinance specifies that a church requires city approval and must be on at least two acres, which the home is not.
“It is difficult to understand how it is illegal to have a prayer meeting on Friday night with a half dozen people but it is alright if I invited the same group on Monday evening to watch Monday Night Football,” said ministry leader Shane Roessiger while facing fines of $250 per day. “I’m going to stand for what I believe.”Shane and Marlene Roessiger operate a ministry called In Him Healing Touch Ministry and use the home for Bible study sessions and for ministry members to gather and pray once a week with up to 10 people normally in attendance. In addition to prayer and Bible study, the ministry has food outreaches in the community and engages in foreign missions work. The latter includes ministering to people living in garbage dumps through providing meals and religious services.
Like many small nonprofits, the Roessigers initially chose to get mail at their home instead of renting out a post office box. Venice code enforcement officials used the listing of the residence as the ministry’s address to build a case against the Roessigers.
The property owners were also cited for violating the city’s sign law, which allows political and real estate signs on residential lawns. They were threatened with an additional $250 per day fine for posting a small sign in their yard which said “Need Prayer” and had their phone number printed on it.
The ministry’s attorney, Kevin Snider of Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), a national rights group, sent a letter to city officials informing them that the couple’s corporate address had been changed, but they would continue using their property for the prayer meetings. In the letter, he also argued that the city’s sign ordinance was constitutionally flawed because it made exceptions for political signs.
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