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Southern California City Says Home Bible Group Must Get Permit

RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. -- For the second time in six months, the city has ordered a group of Christian worshippers who meet inside homes to get a permit or shut down.

It's the latest incident in which religious groups in Southern California have been targeted by cities for home gatherings, though many of those groups were eventually allowed to meet without obtaining permits.

Rancho Cucamonga is trying to halt Friday night meetings at a home after receiving a complaint in February from a neighbor that 40 to 60 people were gathering weekly in the San Bernardino County location.

Officials said the homeowner needs a conditional use permit by Good Friday, April 2, to operate a church in a residential area.

Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit legal defense group that specializes in conservative Christian issues, said the meetings were actually a Bible study group that usually draws about 15 people.

The permit requires public hearings, traffic studies and other costly procedures. Requiring one would be "manifestly absurd and unjust," according to a statement Tuesday from Brad Dacus, president of the Sacramento-based institute.

The city doesn't require permits for similar-sized gatherings, "everything from birthday parties to the weekend beer bash," added Matt McReynolds, an institute attorney.

His organization intends to file an appeal with the city and hopes to avoid going to court, McReynolds said.

Kurt J. Keating, the city's code enforcement supervisor, said the city is trying to restrict church services held in private homes, not home Bible studies.

"There's also some supporting facts that they are advertising themselves as a church over the public domain, such as the Internet," Keating said.

The group is affiliated with Shiloh Tabernacle Church, a local nonprofit run by Puredi Hillary Ministries Inc. According to its Web site, the church stresses "miracles of healing, deliverance from demonic oppression and possession, re-dedications and most importantly, salvations."

Last September, complaints by neighbors about traffic problems prompted the city to order Joe and Diana Johnson to get a church permit or shut down Christian gatherings at their home. The city eventually allowed the meetings to continue without a permit.

Also last year, San Diego County apologized to a pastor and his wife who were cited and told to get a permit for a weekly Bible study session that drew five to 27 people to their Bonita home.

Officials said the citation should never have been issued and a permit was not required.

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