William P. Nichols, a painting contractor, lives in Stratford, Conn., a town of 50,000. Religion is not a sometime thing for Nichols. A member of The Way International, a church based in Ohio, Nichols holds prayer meetings in his home three times a week. About six or seven people usually attend -- friends, neighbors, relatives and working associates of Nichols. They pray, sing and take Bible instruction.
Nichols had been holding these home prayer sessions for more than two years when a citizen complained to the town's zoning board. The complaint cited the fact that religious services were being conducted in a residence and that a gathering of automobi,es accompanied the prayer group on those nights.
The town of Stratford's Zoning Enforcement Officer thereupon wrote Nichols that, according to the zoning regulations, any property used for religious purposes "must be approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission as a Special Case." To be approved as a Special Case, Nichols would first have to file an application for a permit, along with a $75 fee.
It seemed to Nichols that the First Amendment, guaranteeing free exercise of religion, does not give the state the power to prohibit his praying at home, let alone insist that he pay a fee for permission to pray there.
The town of Stratford, having had this ordinance on the books for more than half a century, was not interested in any newfangled constitutional notions, and kept demanding the application for a permit and the check for $75. When Nichols kept refusing, he was informed that his grace period had run out: "You are now required to cease all religious meetings immediately upon receipt of this letter." Failure to tell God that the Nichols home was out of bounds would subject Nichols to a fine of from $100 to $250 a day so long as the illegal praying continued.
The ordinance also provides for possible imprisonment for "not more than 10 days for each day such violation continues" In astonished dismay, Nichols stopped his home prayer meetings.
But William Nichols then received some first-class legal help from a source that might be surprising to most of the electronic preachers who consider the American Civil Liberties Union the enemy of Christmas and much else that is sacred. The Connecticut Civil Liberties Union became Nichols' advocate because, said executive director Williams Olds, "We believe people have a right to pray in the privacy of their own home, and they can invite their friends in to pray with them."
The Hartford Courant, which is older than even the First Amendment, chastised Stratford's town officials for their ignorance of the Constitution. "The government," said the newspaper, "has the power to control religious activities when they threaten public safety, but Stratford's zoning provision goes far beyond that. It applies to all religious activities, regardless of their character or the number of people participating. Even a family praying in its own home would be covered."
In federal District Court, the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union claimed that the town of Stratford, in one fell ordinance, had violated William Nichols' free exercise of religion, his right to privacy, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and Nichols' rights to equal protection of the laws and due process of law. Moreover, that relentless town ordinance unconstitutionally placed a prior restraint on First Amendment activity (the free expression of prayer).
The civil liberties lawyers could not resist noting in their brief that Stratford does not regulate "political meetings, social gatherings, or meetings to solicit sales of commercial products which take place in an individual's home."
Prayer in Stratford is penalized while Tupperware parties enjoy the full protection of the Constitution.
On April 11, T. F. Gilroy Daly, chief judge of the United States District Court in Connecticut, issued a preliminary injunction ordering Stratford officials to let Nichols, his family and his guests pray in peace.
William Olds of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union is pleased to see the First Amendment put back together in Stratford, but he is puzzled that while the ACLU is bastinadoed every Christmas by clerics and newspaper editorial writers for suing over religious symbols and otherwise harassing the faithful, hardly anyone has commended it for restoring William Nichols' right to pray at home. Maybe Jerry Falwell will yet say an inspirational word about the ACLU one Sunday in Lynchburg.