City withdraws demand that couple obtain permit to hold Bible meetings

Friday, December 17, 1999

A Christian pastor and his wife have successfully fought off attempts by Onalaska, Wis., city officials to require them to obtain a permit to hold Bible study meetings at their home.

The Rev. Richard Gilmore and his wife, Audrey, who conduct Bible study in their home every Monday night for five area college students, were told early last month by the Onalaska city planner to 'discontinue any meetings until you have the proper permit.'

In his Nov. 2 letter to the Gilmores, City Planner Jason Gilman said 'complaints about evening meetings' had been received and that if those meetings were of a 'non-commercial nature,' then a conditional-use permit must be obtained before they could continue. Gilman cited a city ordinance that requires a conditional-use permit for 'clubs, fraternities, lodges and meeting places of a noncommercial nature.'

Gilmore, pastor at the Christ is Lord Free Lutheran Church, responded to the city in a Nov. 4 letter saying that his 'private residence' was not a club, fraternity, lodge or non-commercial meeting place. Gilman then told Gilmore that it was 'the regularity of the meeting which requires the permit.'

'If you were simply holding a gathering once during the year, the City would not require the permit,' Gilman said in a Nov. 5 letter to the Gilmores. 'You must discontinue the meetings until a proper permit is obtained or move the meetings to a location where a permit is not required.'

Onalaska Mayor Clarence Stellner, who lives on the same block as the Gilmores, reported the complaints to the city planner. He told the Associated Press that Gilmore 'has a church and I don't see any reason for him to have a meeting, for example, at his house every Monday night.'

Yesterday the Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit religious-liberties group based in Florida, sent a letter to Gilman warning of a possible lawsuit.

'I have reviewed your zoning ordinances, your letter, and constitutional law, and it is my opinion that the Gilmores have a constitutional right under the First Amendment to meet together in their home with other individuals for prayer and/or Bible study,' wrote Mat Staver, the group's president and general legal counsel. 'I have been retained by the Gilmores to file suit if necessary to protect their constitutional rights.'

Staver said that if the city continued to demand that the Gilmores obtain a permit, his group would file a federal lawsuit against the city for unconstitutionally applying the zoning ordinance to the Gilmores.

'Certainly the city's actions relate to the Gilmores free exercise of religion right as well as their right to assembly,' Staver said. 'People have the right to have neighbors over for secular as well as non-secular gatherings.'

Late yesterday, Gilman said that the Gilmores would not be required to obtain a permit and that the city council and mayor would look into revising the ordinance.