Bernsteins Today, Baptists Tomorrow
When ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Avraham Bernstein of Freehold Township, New Jersey, decided to hold a Friday evening Shabbat service in his home almost ten years ago, he had no idea he would become the object of secret, municipal surveillance and the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit.
The township claims Rabbi Bernstein is violating Freehold’s zoning laws, newly amended on September 25, 2007, that ban places of worship in residential neighborhoods without a permit. Bernstein claims the zoning laws violate his First Amendment rights. He has filed suit and is represented by the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Interestingly, Freehold’s laws do not prohibit someone from inviting friends over to drink beer, eat pizza, and watch sports on television. They only prohibit praying. Nor do they ban Monday night football or weekly scrapbooking parties. They only ban studying the Scriptures and addressing the Almighty.
To ascertain the number of people walking to Rabbi Bernstein’s home (his guests park no cars there because they do not drive on Shabbat), the township mounted a camera on the window of the municipal building across the street and secretly filmed what it claims to be between 35 and 50 people attending the Friday evening service.
No, this did not happen in Russia. It happened in America, where the First Amendment to the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” In other words, if Rabbi Bernstein and his friends want to assemble peaceably to exercise their religion freely in a private home, the government should not be able to stop them. But it is trying, nevertheless. And if it succeeds, the implications will be far-reaching.
If Freehold wins this lawsuit, it will be free to shut down home Bible studies and prayer meetings, which actually generate vehicular traffic. And if Freehold gets away with this zoning sleight of hand, what’s to stop other municipalities from doing likewise?
Of course, we’ve seen all this before—only not in America. For example, around 167 B.C., when the madman Antiochus Epiphanes ruled the Promised Land and was determined to exterminate Judaism, he made it illegal for Jewish people to study Torah and pray. So when authorities raided a Jewish home, the Jews quickly hid their Scriptures and pretended to play games, such as dreidel (spinning top)—which evidently was okay with Antiochus, as it would be with Freehold.
Christianity has a long, distinguished history of meeting in homes to study, pray, and sing. When an angel freed the apostle Peter from prison, Peter went “to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying” (Acts 12:12). To the Corinthians the apostle Paul wrote, “The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house” (1 Cor. 16:19). In America, many churches emerged from weekly home Bible studies.
Today Christians are being persecuted around the world by the hundreds of thousands. America is one of the few countries left where citizens are supposed to be able to practice their religion freely. But even in America, a big blaze begins with a little spark. If you don’t douse a fire when it’s small, you may end up watching helplessly as it burns everything in sight. If Freehold succeeds in dismembering the Shabbat service in Rabbi Bernstein’s home, it may only be a matter of time before Baptists see their home Bible studies go up in flames.