On May 7 I attended a public hearing on a proposed ordinance in Fairfax County that would limit assembly in private homes. The proposal would limit the size of gatherings at a home to no more than three gatherings of 50 or more people in a 40-day period.
When our Founders wrote the first amendment they included a right to assembly. Though this right is talked about less frequently than others such as speech and press, it is one of the most important. It affects the family, the church, and the people and any attack on it should be opposed with the fervor of those who began our country. The dangers that were foreseen in 1789 regarding limits on peaceable assembly at the national level apply equally to the local level.
At first glance, the average person may not think this new law is such a big deal. Those at the first hearing stated otherwise. One citizen noted that his large Greek family meets regularly for Sunday lunch and that the proposed law would jeopardize their traditional meal together. An attack on the family.
Another citizen mentioned the fact that he is a deacon at his church and that they use an adjacent residential yard for large church activities, particularly for local children. These would be banned. An attack on the church.
Yet another citizen mentioned that numerous human rights organizations around the world recognize freedom of assembly as one of the basic freedoms. After all, if you can’t organize against those in power without fear of government intervention how can you expect to fight government tyranny? Grassroots political movements would be hindered. An attack on the people.
Already the county regulates the minutiae of its citizen’s daily lives. The issue at hand is one of raw government power. In truth, most citizens will not be affected immediately by this ordinance. This makes it no less grievous.
Why the attempt to limit assembly in George Washington’s backyard? Proponents of the ordinance cited only a small number of cases where this issue had come up in the county in recent years. They mentioned “in-home restaurants” which are already banned in other parts of the zoning code. They consistently ignored the Constitutional and privacy concerns expressed by Fairfax residents.
Prior to the meeting two supervisors mentioned stopping home worship services as the original motive behind the ordinance. When Fairfax County tried to stop home churches previously, Congress stepped in and protected the churches. The county’s attorneys recommended going after the places of worship on other grounds and so the county proposed this law. This is unacceptable in a country where religious liberty is listed in the Bill of Rights as our “first freedom.”
One of the most telling remarks came when the proponents of the law shared why it was needed – “the code is silent in this area.” But our First Amendment rights – including the freedom of speech – weren’t written for the code’s benefit, but for the people’s.
The code already says too much. A little silence would be golden.
Nathan Oppman, Fairfax
The writer serves as a deacon at a church in the county that would potentially be affected by this ordinance.