By Bob Smietana
An 18-month legal fight over Bible studies at a retirement community in California—which included angry tirades and alleged harassment—has been settled.
Things got so bad in the dispute that police allegedly advised Bible study members they ought to bring guns to services.
However, the dispute eventually ended with hurt feelings but nothing worse.
In a legal settlement, the homeowners’ association (HOA) of Solera at Kern Canyon in Bakersfield, California, has agreed it will not “suspend, dissolve, or otherwise limit” the activities of four Bible study groups run by residents.
The retirement community had attempted to ban the Bible studies from meeting in late 2016, according to court documents. The ban was put in place after a resident complained about the Bible studies in a community clubhouse.
In November 2016, the HOA board “ordered the Bible groups to immediately cease using the common facilities as they had for a combined period of approximately 19 years,” according to a lawsuit filed by Bible study members.
The dispute over the Bible studies turned ugly, pitting residents against one another. The hostility continued even after the Bible studies moved to an off-site location.
According to the lawsuit, the main critic of the Bible studies showed up at the off-site location and launched an obscenity-laced tirade. That critic also called the owner of the off-site location to try to get the owner to stop renting space to the Bible study, the lawsuit says.
Bible study members called the police to complain about harassment.
“After discussing the harassment, the police considered the circumstances and advised Plaintiff to file a request for a restraining order and recommended those being harassed who have a permit to carry a concealed weapon should ‘carry guns to worship,’” according to the lawsuit.
The HOA also polled residents, asking whether it should change its rules to bar religious groups.
After filing a lawsuit, Bible study members were allowed to begin meeting again in 2017 while awaiting trial.
This spring, the Bible study members and HOA met for mediation. They reached a settlement and the lawsuit was dismissed.
Doug Gosling, an attorney for the Bible study members, gave Facts & Trends an outline of the settlement terms. He says the groups will be allowed to meet and to advertise their meetings in a newsletter for residents.
“The HOA will promote an environment of mutual respect to the maximum extent permitted by law and consistent with the rights of free expression of HOA residents,” according to Gosling.
The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), a Christian legal group, also assisted with the lawsuit.
Matthew McReynolds, a PJI attorney, said it was a privilege to work with the Bible study members.
“Throughout this case, their faith and dedication have inspired us,” he said in a statement. “They are overcoming physical challenges and disabilities to spread the light in their community, and we couldn’t have been more proud to represent them.”
A similar dispute—though with much less animosity—is still under way in Florida.
In that case, the condominium board of Cambridge House of Port Charlotte barred residents from using a community social room for a Bible study.
Donna Dunbar, a resident who led the Bible study, filed a complaint this spring with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
According to the complaint, the board passed a resolution banning “prayers and other religious services or observations or meetings” in the social room. The building’s management also allegedly sent letters to residents asking them to remove crosses from their doors.
A fountain and statue of St. Francis were removed from the building’s courtyard, and a sign reading “Any and All Christian Music is Banned” was placed on the building’s lobby.
The First Liberty Institute is representing Dunbar.
“The unequal treatment of citizens in the community simply out of hostility to religion violates federal law and the First Amendment,” Lea Patterson, judicial fellow at First Liberty, said in a statement.
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BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.