Penal Code 302 PC sets forth the crime of intentionally disturbing or disrupting a religious meeting by way of
- misbehavior or
- unreasonable noise.
The offense is charged as a misdemeanor punishable by
- up to one year in jail and/or
- a fine of up to $1000.00.
We will quote the full language of the code section and then provide legal analysis below. The code states that:
302. (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.
- heckling a pastor during a religious service
- yelling rude comments at people on their way into mass
- making obscene gestures to those present at a church service
You can challenge a charge under this statute by asserting a legal defense. Common defenses include:
- no intent to disrupt,
- no religious worship, and/or
A violation of this statute is a misdemeanor. This is opposed to a felony or an infraction.
The offense is punishable by:
- imprisonment in county jail for up to one year, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.
A judge may award misdemeanor (or summary) probation in lieu of jail time.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will discuss the following in this article:
- 1. Is it a crime to disturb a religious meeting?
- 2. How can I fight Penal Code 302 charges?
- 3. Can this lead to jail time?
- 4. Can a 302 PC conviction be expunged?
- 5. Are there related offenses?
1. Is it a crime to disturb a religious meeting?
Yes. A prosecutor must prove the following to convict you under PC 302:
- you disturbed an assemblage of people for religious worship at a tax-exempt place of worship,
- you accomplished this with profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior, or by unnecessary noise, and
- you intentionally disturbed the religious meeting.1
Note that you can violate this statute by:
- making a disturbance inside the place where a religious meeting is taking place, or
- making a disturbance outside the place.
If outside, the disturbance has to be near enough to affect the order and solemnity of the meeting.2
Example: Kelly leaves a church after having a disagreement with the church’s minister. During some Sunday services, Lisa enters the church and yells rude comments at the minister.
Here, Kelly is guilty of disturbing religious worship. She intentionally engaged in rude behavior during an assembly of religious worship. She would also be guilty if she yelled her comments outside of the church, provided she was still near enough that those inside could hear.
2. How can I fight Penal Code 302 charges?
You can beat an accusation of disturbing a religious meeting with a legal defense.
Three common defenses are:
- no intent,
- no religious worship, and/or
2.1. No intent
Recall that you are only guilty under these laws if you:
- disturbed a religious meeting.
This means it is always a defense to show that you did not act with criminal intent. Perhaps, for example, you disrupted a meeting by accident.
2.2. No religious worship
This statute only applies to disturbances at places of religious worship. Therefore, you can defend a charge by saying that:
- while you may have disrupted a gathering,
- it was not being held for religious purposes.
Note, though, that you might then be guilty of disturbing a public meeting.
A necessity defense is when you:
- try to avoid guilt,
- by showing that you had a good reason to commit the crime.
People sometimes refer to this defense as “guilty with an explanation.”
In the context of PC 302, you could attempt to show that you:
- committed the crime since,
- you had no other choice (for example, because of an emergency or other lawful purpose).
3. Can this lead to jail time?
A violation of this statute is a misdemeanor.
The offense is punishable by:
- county jail for up to one year, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.3
The judge may permit you to complete several hours of community service in lieu of paying a fine.
4. Can a 302 PC conviction be expunged?
You can get a conviction under these laws expunged.
This is true provided that you:
- completed your jail term, or
- completed probation (whichever one is imposed).
An expungement is a good thing since it removes many of the hardships associated with a conviction.
5. Are there related offenses?
There are three crimes related to disturbing a religious meeting. These are:
- disturbing the peace – PC 415,
- disturbing a public meeting – PC 403, and
- hate crimes.
5.1. Disturbing the peace – PC 415
Penal Code 415 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of “disturbing the peace.”
You commit this offense – also called disorderly conduct – when you:
- disturb someone with loud music,
- fight someone, or
- use offensive words in public.
If a disturbance involved a religious meeting, then:
- a prosecutor would charge the offense under PC 302,
- rather than PC 415.
5.2. Disturbing a public meeting – PC 403
Penal Code 403 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime to:
- any lawful public meeting or assembly.
If such meeting is a religious service, then the crime is charged under Penal Code 302.
5.3. Hate crimes
California’s hate crime laws impose punishment for harming, threatening or harassing someone because of the person’s
- race or ethnicity,
- sexual orientation, or
These laws punish you for:
- harming or harassing people because of their religious beliefs,
- and not for disturbing them during a religious service.
For additional help…
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense attorney, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
For information on similar crimes in Nevada, please see our article on: “Nevada Laws for Disturbing Religious Meetings (NRS 201.270).”
- California Penal Code section 302 PC. See also Church of Christ in Hollywood v. Superior Court (2002) 99 Cal.App.4th 1244; People v. Cruz (Cal. App. Dep’t Super. Ct. Mar. 2, 1972), 25 Cal. App. 3d Supp. 1.
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