House Church Meetings: A Legal Analysis
by Sean J. Gallagher
Original Title: "To What Extent Does the Constitution Protect Religious House Meetings from Government Regulation?"
This paper was undertaken as a seminar course in my final year of law school. As my family had recently began attending a house church, I was inspired to research the fundamental liberty interests of house meetings and current cases reflecting the legal issues. I hope this may provide you with pertinent information. Please feel free to contact me should you have comments.
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Table of Contents
- Public Policy and Recent Illustrations.
- Legal Analysis
- Alternatives and Principles
The use of one‘s house for religious meetings has a long history. From passover sedars of the Hebrews in ancient Egypt, to First Century Christians meeting from house to house, to the Anabaptists of the Middle Ages separating from the state churches of Europe, to the modern-day Chinese in their unregistered house churches; people of minority faiths have conducted religious gatherings in their houses. This comment examines the extent that the U.S. Constitution protects religious house meetings from government interference and how recent cases have been resolved. In addition, public policy issues are discussed and some principles and alternatives are recommended.
The United States has a unique and precious heritage with regards to religious liberty. The cries of spilt blood from thousands of years of state-sponsored religious persecution were heard by the Founders of this country. They recognized that a primary purpose of government was to secure and protect inalienable rights. Of these inalienable rights, the right of religious liberty is considered central as shown by the Founder‘s memorialization in the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, modern constitutional jurisprudence has faced several dilemmas in how to balance religious liberty with generally applicable laws. This has led to uncertainties as to how much protection the free exercise clause provides. In recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the free exercise clause has been substantially limited. Congress and President Clinton have passed a civil rights law that sought to expand religious liberty protections. However, the Supreme Court has overturned this attempt because of jurisdictional issues. As of this writing, Congress is making another attempt to provide greater protection of religious liberties.
This comment limits the focus on religious liberties to the balance between government‘s power to regulate land use through zoning laws and an individual‘s liberty to hold religious gatherings in one‘s residence. Specifically, those liberty interests are analyzed using the protections of the free exercise, free speech, equal protection, and due process clauses. Other constitutional protections such as the right of privacy and the freedom of association doctrines are also evaluated.
The need for wisdom is great because this issue of religious house meetings is basic to any meaningful religious liberty. However, our more densely populated cities and suburbs with an increasing diversity of cultures and religions have the potential to test the tolerance of neighbors and governments. Therefore, this comment also discusses basic principles and alternative checks and balances that should be considered. If religious gatherings at one‘s house that reasonably do not interfere with neighboring properties are not substantially protected from government interference, then the basic civil and inalienable rights of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights have little meaning. However, it remains for the courts and legislative bodies to clearly and consistently speak the law to the issue of religious house meetings.
The age-old problem for religious liberty has been how various religiously-motivated people conflict with one another and with the society at-large. This has become all the more common with the increasing variety of diverse religious expressions as our public society has grown more secularized. The government, vested with the police power for the protection of health, safety, morals, and general welfare has historically trumped the individual except as constrained by the judiciary branch. The courts and legislatures have sought to define the lines of jurisdiction between government, church, family, and individual since the birth of this country. Due to the complexity of the infinite number of scenarios, bright line rules have been elusive. This comment seeks to focus on the limited question: To what extent does the U.S. Constitution protect religious house meetings from government regulation?
Copyright (c) 2000 S. J. Gallagher