Disturbing a Religious Meeting in California: Penal Code 302
California Penal Code section 302 states, “Every person 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.”
When Is It a Crime to Disturb a Religious Meeting?
PC 302 describes the requirements for being charged with the crime of disturbing a religious meeting. In order to violate this law one must:
- Disturb a gathering of religious worship that took place at a tax-exempt religious institution AND
- Intentionally disturb the meeting by doing one of the following
- Using profanity
- Making unnecessary noise
- Engaging in rude or indecent behavior
What Are the Punishments for Violating California PC 302?
PC 302 is a misdemeanor offense in California. The punishments can include:
- Up to 1 year in a county jail
- A maximum fine of $1,000
Beware that in addition to these punishments, it is common for someone in violation of PC 302 to also be subject to California hate crime laws. Hate crime laws enforce harsher sentences for people who harm or harass others because of characteristics such as gender, race, and in this case, religious beliefs. If the PC 302 violation is charged as a hate crime, then it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, and the punishments could be:
- Up to 3 years in a state prison
- A maximum fine of $10,000
How Can I Defend Myself if I Am Wrongfully Accused of Disturbing a Religious Meeting?
There are several possible defenses to a wrongful charge of disturbing a religious meeting. Some of these include:
- The meeting you disturbed was not necessarily a “religious meeting”
- You did not do something that qualifies as a disturbance as specified in PC 302
- Your disturbance was unintentional
In order to be charged with this crime, the meeting you disturb must meet certain requirements. First, the venue must be a tax-exempt place of worship, so if this is not the case, you would not be in violation of PC 302. It is also required that the people there were meeting for religious purposes. This means that even if there was a meeting at a tax-exempt religious institution, it also has to have been for religious worship in order to qualify.
Example: A church congregation that meets at the St. Joe’s Elementary School chapel decides to hold a charity kickball tournament on the field of the school. During the tournament, a heckler decides to yell rude and profane phrases at the players, which leads to his arrest on the grounds that he was in violation of PC 302.
While the heckler may be guilty of disturbing the peace, (PC 415) he technically is not disturbing a religious meeting. The congregation met on the premises of a tax-exempt place of worship, but they met to play kickball, not for religious purposes.
It may be the case that you did not actually do anything that is classified under PC 302 as a “disturbance.” The law requires that you used profanity, made unnecessary noise, or acted rudely or indecently. There are ways to disrupt a meeting that does not include doing these things, including actions that are unintentional. Perhaps you attended a religious meeting with your baby, and your baby started crying, which interrupted the gathering. Whatever the action was, if it was unintentional, or did not include any of the required criteria for a disturbance, you would not be in violation of PC 302.