Government launches holy war on pastor for home-churching

(Photo by Joe Kovacs)
(Photo by Joe Kovacs)

A legal fight has been triggered in New Hampshire because of a town’s demand that a group of people meeting for religious services must undergo an extensive – and expensive – permitting process that is not being required for those groups that are secular.

A report from First Liberty Institute explains that a request has been filed for a preliminary injunction against officials in the town of Weare, accusing them of violating the law by requiring an “expensive and onerous site review plan” for the church to meet in the pastor’s home.

“Hundreds of thousands of Americans meet every day in homes for prayer meetings, Bible studies, book clubs, card games, and other gatherings. Why would Weare city officials demand this small church stop meeting in the pastor’s home, but ignore Super Bowl parties and political gatherings?” asked Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute. “Since the day the First Amendment became law all people of faith have been granted the right to worship and pray in their home with like-minded people.”

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Sean Royall, of King & Spalding which is helping with the case, charged, “In the United States, the tradition of using individual homes for religious gatherings—even formal church services—has garnered special solicitude under the law. The suit is about protecting that legal right for all faiths.”

The legal team members reported, “Pastor Howard Kaloogian founded Grace New England Church in his home as a church plant. He welcomes people in his home and occasionally holds social gatherings for invited guests.”

Then, a few months ago city officials sent him a “Cease and Desist” order, demanding that he “immediately stop any assembly regarding Grace New England Church. This Cease and Desist will remain in effect until a site plan is submitted, reviewed and there is a decision made by the Town Planning Board.”

The city issued other threats, to, regarding penalties and such.

The complaint states that “the First Amendment’s guarantee to ‘free exercise’ is inviolate in one’s home and cannot be dismissed at the request of a town’s zoning officer. The demand to ‘Cease and Desist…any assembly regarding Grace New England Church’ directly implicates the First Amendment’s ‘right of the people peaceably to assemble.'”

The town officials, in fact, are ignoring that “federal and state law protect the church’s religious activities,” the filing charges.

“The town has drawn a distinction between religious and non-religious assemblies without good reason,” the church charged. “The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the First Amendment do not tolerate such distinctions.”

The court filing explains:

Pastor Kaloogian moved to the Town in 2015. His home, situated on a spacious five-acres of land, consists of two main buildings: the primary residence and a renovated barn. The barn used to be a woodshop and party barn—well-known in the community for hosting acclaimed parties from the previous property owner—but has since undergone significant renovations. Now, the renovated barn consists of pews, a pulpit, an insulated ceiling, and an upgraded heating system. Pastor Kaloogian has also renovated the property to accommodate visitors, such as installing a retaining wall to allow off-street parking.

Given Pastor Kaloogian’s strong sense of community and desire to bring people together, he wanted to host events on his property. For example, Pastor Kaloogian and his wife considered using their home, specifically the barn, to host weddings, dances for adults with disabilities, and other similar events. But before hosting these events, Pastor Kaloogian and his wife went through the proper channels to see if any approvals were needed to proceed.

Pastor Kaloogian and his wife went before the Town’s Planning Board to present their idea. The Planning Board did not require the submission of a site plan, but informed them that, so long as they did not charge for the events, the barn could be used for whatever lawful purpose. These lawful purposes presumably allowed a wide range of events or gatherings, religious or non-religious. Pastor Kaloogian and his wife, therefore, proceeded with their plan to host events at their home, including their barn, for next several years. Many of these events included non-religious gatherings.

For example, the Kaloogian’s used the barn as a meeting place for an observance of the annual Pine Tree Riot—an event widely promoted by the community organization Americans for Prosperity. The property has also supported a range of political and social events. One of those events consisted of a visit from the well-known politician Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and garnered hundreds of community members in attendance. Other events that have drawn a crowd and used the Kaloogian’s barn include a Governor Asa Hutchinson meet-and-greet, local Republican Party meetings, congressional campaigns, political fundraisers, and meet the candidate events.

Another included at least one wedding, in which the barn was used as part of the event. Other social events hosted in their home were less formal, including pinochle games, backgammon tournaments, Super Bowl parties, birthday parties, a military sendoff party, and an annual New Year’s Eve party.

However, when he announced that he would allow services by a small – 25-member – church, city officials immediately arrived on site and ordered him to fill out a use request, and told him it probably wouldn’t be approved.

The city blocked the church’s meetings by refusing to grant a permit for a heater that was purchased to use in the meeting area. Then it criticized the insulation used. Then it threatened further action, including that from the state fire inspector. And it threatened daily fines.

The case charges that the city’s laws are not “neutral or generally applicable,” but in fact target religious meetings.

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