Is what’s happening in Scarborough fair?

On the surface this reads like an angry council being spurred on by some angry residents to persecute an Australian church…

Scarborough Baptist Church, in Western Australia, has been ordered to cease almost all its activities because their church property is only technically allowed to conduct religious services and childcare. Their media release says:

“On 18 September 2012 Scarborough Baptist Church received notification from the City of Stirling requiring the Church to cease all activities (including feeding the needy and running craft and pre-school dance classes) not defined by the City as “religious activities”. The penalty for not complying is an immediate fine of $1,000,000 plus $125,000 per day that the Church fails to comply.

Many of these activities are central to the Church’s pastoral role within the community, and have been operating in the church for years; the craft group, for example, has been holding weekly craft meetings for 35 years, and the evening service and community meal has now been running for nearly a decade.

The City of Stirling has failed to provide any evidence that Scarborough Baptist Church has contravened any local by-laws. Through this Direction, the City has taken upon itself the right to define what constitutes a religious activity. According to the City’s correspondence, religious activities exclude, among others: funerals, weddings, Easter services, youth groups, quiz nights to raise funds for local schools, fêtes and fairs to raise funds for world aid, and the provision of meals and services to the community.

It is the position of Scarborough Baptist Church, in accordance with the separation of Church and State, that local government officials not take it upon themselves to define what a religious activity is, be it in the context of a church, mosque, temple, synagogue, or other place of worship.”

I’m not a big fan of that last paragraph – I mean I understand where they’re coming from, but I think they assume a “separation of church and state” that might not actually exist in the form that they’re suggesting it does. However, the idea that local government officials shouldn’t be defining what a religious activity is is pretty sound.

There’s also some nice bits of the Bible to support what Scarborough Baptist are defining as religious activities – especially the bolded bits above:

From James 1:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

And Mark 10, where Jesus is talking to a young rich guy.

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.””

Jesus makes it a pretty big deal towards the end of Matthew too, in chapter 25…

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Now. I don’t live in Western Australia, so I’m not exactly sure what’s going down here – but this seems to be a bit of a PR nightmare for the council, and a great opportunity for the church. Perhaps they should move their activities to a park or something while this gets sorted out… but at the very least they’ll be able to talk a bit about what it means to be a Christian – and how these activities relate to what Jesus taught.

The story is getting some coverage, and I guess we can expect to see more of it in coming days… here’s one of the fairly sympathetic stories from a West Australian outlet… where the plot thickens a bit… with two things:

The complaints were apparently initiated by the church’s neighbours… for what some might consider a legitimate reason.

“The council said it was obliged to investigate after receiving complaints from residents over late-night noise and antisocial behaviour such as urination in public…

… Health and compliance manager Peter Morrison said the council has told the church that it would consider changes to allow many of the activities if the church lodged the necessary applications and showed how it would address neighbourhood concerns.

“The church has refused to make any such application,” he said. “Any organisation, church or not, needs to make an application to their local government authority to conduct activities on premises.”

And the council is prepared to allow the church “conduct worship” if it fills out some paperwork.

Here’s what I’d be doing if I were the church in question.

1. Reach out to the neighbourhood. Mending bridges. Apologising. Offering the same love to the immediate neighbours that they seem pretty good at offering to the community at large. Deliberately.

2. Put together a teaching series on what “religion that God accepts” looks like – putting these on the website, and issuing a media release inviting the community along to experience “true religion”… even if they have to do it in a park. This gets the church’s position into the public domain as quickly, clearly, and proactively as possible.

3. Submit to the requests of the government and fill out the paperwork – and see what activities the council deems inappropriate.

4. Write an open letter to the mayor, sent to the local paper, outlining the church’s commitment to praying faithfully for, and serving the city, especially by lovingly pointing people to Jesus, and caring for them as he requires, with no request for special treatment, but a promise to keep on using whatever resources the church has to love and serve the community, out of the hope that they will see their need for Jesus through the love of his people, with a concluding statement that even one day’s worth of the fine will put the church out of business.

Obviously I’m not that church, and they have a much better idea of what’s going on on the ground, with their neighbours, with their finances, and how essential their activities are to their presence in the community. But it’s interesting to work from a non-hypothetical dilemma.

There’s an interesting take on the situation from a guy named Stephen McAlpine here, he suggests a couple of different solutions…

This could be a big deal, or it could be a small deal, either way – it raises some interesting questions about how to be the church in Australia and what it means to have a physical presence in a community.

UPDATE: There’s another good story from a couple of days ago that’s worth a read. I especially like these last lines:

Pastors and church members are adamant that they should be allowed to serve food under their licence to operate as a church, because feeding the needy is part of a religious service.

Seven-year-member Colin Rowecliffe says: “We are a church, and inherent in that is the approval to be a church and act like a church.”

We want to be a church that is community minded, that not only has bible studies and prayers but also does things in the community”.

“We don’t just try to do talk about what Jesus does, we try to do what Jesus did.”

Also, in the comments, RodeoClown shared a response that Scarborough Baptist issued after that first article. It’s worth a read in full… but some highlights:

“Peter Morrison’s comments regarding Scarborough Baptist Church gives the wrong impression that the church is being deliberately intransigent and seeks to put itself above the law. Up to now the church has had no evidence presented to us to indicate that we have breached any by-laws of the City of Stirling or laws of the state. Mr. Morrison refers to complaints about late night activities by the church. Our Sunday evening meal finishes at 8pm. with all the people dispersed by 8.15pm. at the latest. Once or twice a year we may have a meeting up to ten at night – which hardly constitute ‘late nights’. The complaints can thus not refer to the church’s activities and should have been dismissed.”…

…We have always sought permission for activities conducted outside our church buildings that may impact on the community. Furthermore, officials of the City of Stirling trained us on how to provide meals in line with health regulations at our Sunday fellowship and outreach services.

5 Comments Is what’s happening in Scarborough fair?

  1. RodeoClown

    Hi Nathan,
    This was their response (taken from a comment on Dominic Steele (of Christians in the Media)’s facebook profile):

    Response to City of Stirling’s comments in the West Australian

    Peter Morrison’s comments regarding Scarborough Baptist Church gives the wrong impression that the church is being deliberately intransigent and seeks to put itself above the law. Up to now the church has had no evidence presented to us to indicate that we have breached any by-laws of the City of Stirling or laws of the state. Mr. Morrison refers to complaints about late night activities by the church. Our Sunday evening meal finishes at 8pm. with all the people dispersed by 8.15pm. at the latest. Once or twice a year we may have a meeting up to ten at night – which hardly constitute ‘late nights’. The complaints can thus not refer to the church’s activities and should have been dismissed.

    As to complaints about the church exceeding prescribed noise levels, we have asked the City of Stirling to do sound checks so that we could rectify any problems if they did exist. They have not provided any evidence that we have breached the sound limits – in fact they wrote a letter of apology admitting they were wrong to insist that we had done so.

    We have always sought permission for activities conducted outside our church buildings that may impact on the community. Furthermore, officials of the City of Stirling trained us on how to provide meals in line with health regulations at our Sunday fellowship and outreach services.

    We are at a loss to understand the lengths to which officials of the City will go to find things against the church. One official, for instance, accused us, in the presence of the mayor, of being a health hazard to the community. When pressed, he said it was “by children using ‘dangerous chemicals’ (soap and water) to wash cars in the car park” during an event to raise funds for relief work in Africa. Ironically, we had specifically asked permission, and was granted, from the City of Stirling for both the event and the car wash.

    While the City must respond to complaints from people in the community, it also has the duty to investigate and evaluate the complaints and not to simply come out on the side of those raising false accusations against the church. Some people in the area have indicated that they do not like the kind of people who come to our church services. We believe that Jesus died in love for all and that all the things we do in our church building are integral to our mission to share this love of Jesus with everyone.

    We do not believe that a bureaucrat in the City of Stirling, who may be a secular atheist, can prescribe to churches – or to other religious groups – which religious activities they may or may not conduct in their buildings. At the moment the City of Stirling does not include Easter services, funerals, weddings, youth groups etc as religious activities in their correspondence. Should churches and other religious groups really be forced to go cap in hand to a secular official and beg him/her to allow them to do those things that they consider to be a part of their faith and in their own building? Should the government be given the power to determine what actions are religious or not? This smacks of communist China or of the old Soviet Union, not of a modern day western democracy with a separation between state and church.
    In their press release the City of Stirling indicates that they never threatened us with a $1m fine. This is contrary to their letter to the church published below.

    We are grateful for the support we have had from many people both in Australia and from across the world. The support of Liza Harvey, the minister of police, may indicate that others do not see us, as the City seems to infer, as people who place themselves above the law. We exist to serve the community in love. We believe that over the decades while conducting these ministries we have acted as responsible and law abiding citizens. Please allow us the freedom to conduct our religious activities in our church as long as we do not contravene the laws of the land.

    Yours in Christ Jesus,

    Dr. Andre van Oudtshoorn
    Senior Pastor
    Scarborough Baptist Church
    26/09/2012

  2. Bruce

    would polite emails to the council be helpful in terms of bringing to their attention that it is something that has been noticed and commented on?

    1. Nathan Campbell

      Hi Bruce,

      I think so, but they’re more likely to listen to polite letters from their constituents.

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