NEW MILFORD, Conn. A federal judge has ruled a New Milford family has the right to hold prayer meetings at home.
A town zoning-enforcement officer blocked the meetings at Robert and Mary Murphy's Jefferson Drive home in 2000 after neighbors complained about the crowds at the Sunday afternoon gatherings.
An estimated 25 to 40 people were attending the meetings on the family's back porch. The Murphys began holding the home gatherings after Robert Murphy became ill in 1994.
The zoning order started a legal battle between the town and the family. In 2000, a federal judge issued a temporary order permitting the family to hold meetings of 35 people or less. Half a year later, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction allowing the meetings to continue.
In a decision published on Oct. 3, U.S. Magistrate Judge Holly B. Fitzsimmons gave a permanent order that said the town had hindered the Murphys' rights to exercise their religion and to peaceably assemble.
"This is about religious freedom," the Murphys' attorney, Vincent McCarthy, of the American Center for Law and Justice, told The News-Times of Danbury. "This is a victory for people who want to do what they want to in their own homes."
The couple's 27-year-old son, Daniel Murphy, said his family could now worship without the fear of government intrusion.
"A lot of people were afraid to come because they thought they would get arrested, when it started," he said.
Zoning Commission Vice Chairman Brooks Temple said the commission had been reluctant to block the family's prayer group all along, but commission members felt they had to protect the rights of the Murphys' neighbors.
Temple said the issue was a tough one to decide, and he said he wouldn't have rejoiced if the town had won the case.
"Even if we had won, we would have lost," he said.
A later court hearing will determine whether the town will pay the Murphys' legal fees or damages. McCarthy, the family's attorney, said they had not decided whether to seek damages.