Originally posted on JacksonLeaks.com (cross-posted with permission)
So what happens when Code Enforcement gets tired of spying?
A helpful reader has provided audio of a conversation where they were confronted at their front door by two Code Enforcement Officers over praying in their house, after being watched by them for weeks. Below are excerpts from this audio. It is worth noting that the two officers are professional throughout and the conversation is cordial, however we find the content disturbing.
Code Enforcement Head Ken Pieslak introduces himself, and tells the resident that prayer (shudder) has been reported in his house. Praying is somehow against the law, though Ken isn’t sure exactly which one; it has something to do with acreage and setback. From his description it’s almost certain he is referring to Jackson zoning code § 244-115, which sets the conditions for a building that is primarily an institutional church, including a 2 acre lot and 200 foot setbacks. Needless to say, this person’s house is primarily a private residence and thus not subject to these requirements.
Ken Pieslak: I’m Ken Pieslak, department of compliance supervisor.
Are you the owner? Okay.
We’re getting, we’ve received some complaints last week that on Friday, you’re conducting services in the house. And we don’t want to bother, we didn’t want to come Friday at sundown and bother you so we wanted to get a hold of you ahead of time, cause you may not be aware that we have a code that doesn’t allow it. It only allows it in certain zones and you need X amount of property and, be, 200 foot setbacks and so forth. And we can get you a copy of the code, I don’t have it on me right now, but we just wanted to make you aware that it isn’t allowed.
I mean, if you have something scheduled for tonight, we understand, we don’t wanna, it’s last minute, we’re okay with that. But anything in the future beyond that, you know, we’re going to have to give a notice of violation followed up by a summons and that sort of…
What was the actual complaint? Was it noise or parking violations that spurred this concerned citizen to action? Code Enforcement Officer Connie Sidor fills in the details: an anonymous tipster helpfully took a video of people praying in the house and reported it.
Connie Sidor: The complaint came in, and we have a video of, they say, 30 people going into the garage and holding some kind of service or something. So, the ordinance says you can’t hold, on a continuous basis, any type of church or religious service.
Forget about any useful legal advice (or lack thereof) the officers may have been operating with, doesn’t this fail a basic smell test? Does it really bear saying that people are allowed to worship in groups in the privacy of their homes? Substitute in another type of gathering and imagine the absurdity: getting a notice of violation for hosting a weekly Boy Scout troop meeting or a summons because you have invited friends over on successive Sundays to watch the Giants lose. Imagine the township showing up because someone sent them videos of you having dinner parties (“We have decided that you are a restaurant” says Ken). What country is this anyways that people record their neighbors praying and run off to report them?
Let’s be reasonable here, one cannot do whatever they want in the name of religion. In Sexton v. Bates for example, the construction of a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) was disallowed in a residential area in NJ. But our state constitution ensures that the right to gather and pray cannot be abridged by municipal zoning.
How do they know what these people were doing once they got into the garage? Were they watching a television show together? Playing Monopoly perhaps?
The correct answer is that it doesn’t matter. Government must respect your right to freedom of association. To allow a group gathering for one purpose but not another is an impermissible content based determination.