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Disturbing a Religious Meeting - Penal Code 302 PC

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Dec 16, 2022

The Constitution protects the rights of freedom of speech and religious expression. However, those rights only extend to the point where the rights of one do not infringe upon the rights of others.

In the State of California, for example, the law specifically protects freedom of religious expression by making it a crime for anyone to willfully disrupt a religious meeting—even in the name of "freedom of speech."

Under Penal Code 302 PC, if you engage in rude behavior, speak profanely, or make loud noises for the purpose of disturbing a religious gathering, you can be charged with a crime. If convicted, you could face up to one year in jail.

Disturbing a Religious Meeting - Penal Code 302 PC
It's a crime under Penal Code 302 PC to intentionally disturb religious worship in California.

PC 302 says, “(a) anyone who intentionally disturbs or disquiets any assemblage of people met for religious worship at a tax-exempt place of worship, by profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior, or by any unnecessary noise, either within the place where the meeting is held, or so near it as to disturb the order and solemnity of the meeting, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Subsection (b) says that the court could require the performance of community service of not less than 50 hours and not more than 80 hours as an alternative to a fine and jail time.

Subsection (c) says that in addition to the penalties in subsection (a), anyone who has a prior conviction of violating this statute, or section 403, will be required to perform community service of not less than 120 hours and not more than 160 hours.

Of note is that you can violate this law by making a disturbance inside or outside the place where a religious meeting is taking place. If outside, the disturbance must be near enough to impact the services. Let's review this state-level law in more detail below.

Overview of Penal Code 302 PC

In California, Penal Code 302 PC makes it illegal for anyone to intentionally and willfully disturb or disquiet a religious worship service with rudeness, profound noises, or any other behavior that can be reasonably considered disruptive.

To convict you of this crime, prosecutors must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • You willfully and intentionally acted to disrupt a meeting of people for religious worship;
  • The gathering took place at a tax-exempt place of worship, such as a church, synagogue, or mosque;
  • You employed profane language, rude or offensive behavior, or unnecessary noises for the purpose of disruption;
  • Your disruptive behavior occurred either inside the place of worship or near enough to it to impact the solemnity of the meeting.

The related crimes include Penal Code 403 PC disturbing a public meeting and Penal Code 415 PC disturbing the peace.

What Are Some Examples?

EXAMPLE 1: Angered by something a church pastor said, Arnold enters the church on a Sunday morning and cusses out the pastor while he is trying to preach. Arnold may be charged with a crime under PC 302.

Penal Code 302 is charged as a misdemeanor.

EXAMPLE 2: On a Saturday morning, Kate and her friends do "donuts" with their car in a synagogue parking lot and honk the horn loudly while the service is going on. Kate and her friends may be charged under Penal Code 302 PC if the noise is loud enough to disrupt the religious meeting inside the synagogue.

EXAMPLE 3: A small church group meets in a local restaurant for a Bible study. Blake stops for a coffee, notices and recognizes the small group, walks up to their table, and loudly addresses the women in a lewd manner.

Although Blake may be charged with other crimes, for example, disturbing the peace under Penal Code 415 PC, he will likely not be charged under PC 302 because the meeting wasn't taking place in a tax-exempt building.

EXAMPLE 4: Fred hosts music groups at his coffee shop on Friday nights. The scheduled band is unusually loud on Good Friday night, and the music drifts into the church across the street where gatherers are trying to observe Good Friday. Fred will likely not be charged under PC 302 because the noise was not intended to disrupt the meeting.

What Are the Penalties for PC 302?

A violation of PC 302 is a misdemeanor offense. If convicted, you face up to one year in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

However, given the nature of this crime, the law specifically makes provision for a judge to impose 50-80 hours of community service as an alternative sentence to jail or a fine.

If so, you may be required to fulfill some or all of those community service hours to benefit the religious institution you disrupted.

For subsequent offenses, in addition to jail time and fines, you may also be sentenced to an additional 120-160 hours of community service. Again, some or all of those hours may be fulfilled at the institution victimized by your actions.

What Are the Defenses for PC 302?

There are several defenses our California criminal defense attorneys may use to fight charges of disturbing a religious meeting, most of which have to do with disproving one of the elements of the crime listed above. The common defenses are discussed below.

Perhaps we can argue that you did not act with willful intent. For example, maybe you did not know there was a religious meeting, or you have a physical or neurological condition that causes you to behave involuntarily in a disruptive manner.

Defenses for Disturbing a Religious Meeting
Call our law firm for legal advice.

Perhaps we can argue that you did not disrupt a religious meeting. For example, no meeting was in progress when your actions occurred, or the meeting was social rather than religious. You may, however, be charged with other crimes if this is the case.

Perhaps we can argue that the meeting was not held in a tax-exempt religious facility. For example, maybe the gathering was in a restaurant, as mentioned in Example 3 above.

Perhaps we can argue that you acted out of necessity (i.e., "guilty with an explanation"). If you can show you had a legitimate reason for disrupting the meeting due to an emergency, you may be able to have the charges dropped.

If you need legal representation after being accused of committing a crime, contact us to review the case details and legal options. You can contact our law firm or use the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, CA.

About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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