Disturbing a Religious Meeting
Penal Code 302 PC

California Penal Code 302 makes it a crime to disturb a religious meeting.1

Disturbing a religious gathering is similar to the crime of Penal Code 403 PC disturbing a public meeting or assembly.2

But PC 302 disturbing a religious meeting is covered under its own law—and is punished more harshly than disturbing a secular meeting. This disparity reflects the government's interest in providing extra protection to religious activities.3

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Penal Code 302 PC imposes special penalties on people who disturb religious services.

In this way, California's law on disturbing a religious meeting is somewhat similar to California's “hate crimes” laws—which also provide for harsher penalties for certain crimes based on who the victims are.

The legal definition of disturbing religious worship

You violate Penal Code 302 PC if:

  1. You disturb an assemblage of people with profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior or unnecessary noise;
  2. Those people have come together for religious worship at a tax-exempt place of worship; and
  3. You create the disturbance intentionally.4

Example: The minister of an evangelical Christian church regularly tells the churchgoers in his sermons that gay marriage is evil and that homosexuals will “burn in hell.”

Miguel and Scott are gay men who are married and live near this church. They have heard about the pastor's sermons and are outraged. So one Sunday they attend the church service. When the sermon begins, they heckle the pastor and engage in some obscene displays of affection.

Miguel and Scott may be guilty of disturbing a religious meeting.

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California's "disturbing religious meetings" law applies to churches, synagogues and all other tax-exempt places of worship.

You can commit the crime of disturbing a religious meeting either by making a disturbance inside the place where the meeting is taking place or by making a disturbance outside that place—provided you are near enough to affect the order and solemnity of the meeting.5

Example: Lisa is a former member of a church. She strongly disagrees with the direction in which a new minister is taking the church. She is also angry at many of her former friends who still attend the church and are supportive of the minister.

Sometimes during Sunday services Lisa stands outside the church and yells rude comments that she knows can be heard through the windows. She also makes angry remarks to churchgoers as they enter and leave the church.

Lisa may be guilty of disturbing a religious service under California Penal Code 302, even though she never enters the church.6

Penal Code 302 PC penalties

Disrupting a religious service is a misdemeanor in California law.7

The potential penalties include:

If you are granted probation instead of jail time under PC 302, the judge will likely require you to perform at least fifty (50) and no more than eighty (80) hours of community service.9

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If you are found guilty of disturbing a religious meeting, you may be required to perform community service at the religious institution you are alleged to have disturbed.

And if this is not your first conviction for disturbing a religious assemblage, you must perform at least one hundred twenty (120) and no more than one hundred sixty (160) hours of community service.10

Depending on the circumstances, this community service may take place at the religious institution where you are alleged to have violated this law.11

Legal defenses

Because American society is particularly respectful of religion, a conviction for disturbing a religious meeting leads to harsher penalties—and more stigma—than a conviction for a similar crime like Penal Code 415 PC disturbing the peace.

This can make fighting Penal Code 302 charges feel like an uphill battle. But there is hope. Our California criminal defense attorneys may be able to help you get these charges reduced or dismissed with one of several common legal defenses.

For example, according to Hemet criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi12:

“Lack of intent is one of the most common effective legal defenses against charges of disturbing a religious meeting. Penal Code 302 clearly states that you are only guilty of this offense if you intentionally disturb a worship session. No matter how obnoxiously you behaved, if it was not actually your goal to disturb the religious meeting, you are not guilty of this crime.”

Another potential legal defense is that your behavior was not actually profane, rude or indecent.

Even religious groups and their leaders behave unfairly sometimes. They may accuse someone of breaking the law for behavior that—though it may have annoyed or offended members of the group—was not actually unreasonable or socially unacceptable.

Call us for help…
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For questions about the crime of Penal Code 302 PC disturbing a religious meeting, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

Additional Resources:

California Attorney General's 2014 Hate Crimes Report

Legal References:


1 Penal Code 302 PC – Disturbing religious meetings; punishment; community service; waiver. (“(a) 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 punishable by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by imprisonment in a county jail for a period not exceeding one year, or by both that fine and imprisonment. (b) A court may require performance of community service of not less than 50 hours and not exceeding 80 hours as an alternative to imprisonment or a fine. (c) In addition to the penalty set forth in subdivision (a), a person who has suffered a previous conviction of a violation of this section or Section 403, shall be required to perform community service of not less than 120 hours and not exceeding 160 hours. (d) The existence of any fact which would bring a person under subdivision (c) or (d) shall be alleged in the complaint, information, or indictment and either: (1) Admitted by the defendant in open court. (2) Found to be true by a jury trying the issue of guilt. (3) Found to be true by the court where guilt is established by a plea of guilty or nolo contendere. (4) Found to be true by trial by the court sitting without a jury. (e) Upon conviction of any person under this section for disturbances of religious worship, the court may, in accordance with the performance of community service imposed under this section, consistent with public safety interests and with the victim's consent, order the defendant to perform a portion of, or all of, the required community service at the place where the disturbance of religious worship occurred. (f) The court may waive the mandatory minimum requirements for community service whenever it is in the interest of justice to do so. When a waiver is granted, the court shall state on the record all reasons supporting the waiver.”)

2 See Penal Code 403 PC – Disturbance of public assembly or meeting. (“Every person who, without authority of law, willfully disturbs or breaks up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character, other than an assembly or meeting referred to in Section 302 of the Penal Code or Section 18340 of the Elections Code, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”)

3 Compare Penal Code 302 PC – Disturbing religious meetings; punishment; community service; waiver, endnote 1 above, with Penal Code 403 PC – Disturbance of public assembly or meeting, endnote 2 above.

See also Penal Code 19 PC – Punishment for misdemeanor; punishment not otherwise prescribed. (“Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a misdemeanor is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both.”)

4 Penal Code 302 PC – Disturbing religious meetings; punishment; community service; waiver, endnote 1 above.

5 Same.

6 Loosely based on the facts of Church of Christ in Hollywood v. Superior Court (2002) 99 Cal.App.4th 1244.

7 Penal Code 302 PC – Disturbing religious meetings; punishment; community service; waiver, endnote 1 above.

8 Same.

9 Same.

10 Same.

11 Same.

12 Hemet criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi was a police officer for over a decade before he made the switch to a career seeking justice for criminal defendants. Scafiddi represents clients in both felony and misdemeanor proceedings (including disturbing religious meetings cases) at the Riverside Hall of Justice, the Palm Springs Courthouse, the San Bernardino Courthouse, and the Victorville Courthouse, among others.

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