BROOKVILLE — The large courtroom in the Jefferson County Courthouse was filled to near capacity Monday when residents of Snyder Township and Brockway attended a public hearing that addressed community concerns with the Just For Jesus Group Home, located in Snyder Township.
The Jefferson County Commissioners called the meeting in conjunction with the Snyder Township Supervisors to discuss the Just For Jesus ministry group home's ability to provide proper housing for its residents.
State Sen. Joe Scarnati, who was also in attendance, supported legislation passed last year that gave local governments the authority to hold a public hearing in regard to a group home which provides housing to a convicted murderer.
The commissioners set the meeting as required by Act 95 of 2011 passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
Vic Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said last week that Rev. Jack Wisor, of Just For Jesus, would not attend the hearing because "it is a meeting with no purpose other than to give the community the opportunity to express its displeasure with how the ministry operates."
"Obviously, Scarnati and others don't like the way Bishop Wisor and his flock practice their religion," Walczak said last week. "They don't seem to appreciate their interpretation of Christianity."
In a letter released last week, the ACLU claimed the law allowing a public hearing in this case was unconstitutional.
The meeting was chaired by Ed Ferraro, solicitor for Snyder Township, who said that the purpose of the meeting was not to criticize anyone's religious beliefs, and any comments regarding religious beliefs would not be allowed.
After the hearing, Scarnati said the purpose of the law was to ask questions and interact, since there are concerns about the group home.
"I'm concerned with the fact that we have someone in the community like Jack Wisor, who has been trying to promote his program, and when he has an opportunity to come and discuss some of these issues, he fails to show," Scarnati said, adding that the meeting allowed citizens to come and vent their anguish, their frustration and their fears.
"Without a doubt, I'm disappointed that Jack Wisor chose to hide behind the ACLU," the senator said. "The ACLU is an organization that has worked diligently to take the Ten Commandments out of public places, removed nativity scenes and eliminated school prayer.”
The Senate recently approved legislation that would help to protect communities by prohibiting group-based homes from providing concurrent housing to multiple individuals who are required to register as sexually violent predators.
Scarnati amended Senate Bill 1183 to make it a civil penalty to house more than one sexually violent predator, unless they are spouses, siblings, or a parent and child.
The Pennsylvania State Police or local law enforcement agencies would have the authority to investigate compliance, and those found in violation could face civil penalties of up to $2,500 for the first violation and $5,000 for subsequent violations, Scarnati said recently.
Scarnati said the reason he changed his bill was because when the senate was preparing the amendment, Just For Jesus had five to six sexually violent predators housed at its facility.
"Once my amendment became law, at least five sexually violent predators would have been released into the community," he said. "To me, that was too much of a risk, to shut down the group home in that manner."
Scarnati amended the bill to allow five per address.
"Hopefully, in time, we'll be able to eliminate all of them from the Just For Jesus facility, because they do move on," Scarnati said, adding that he's not just creating these laws to shut down Just For Jesus.
“I will not live in a community (Brockway) and stand by and do nothing,” Scarnati said.
He said he was elected to represent the 25th Senatorial district, in which Snyder Township is located.
"I'm representing the constituents of my district in the best fashion that I can," he said. "If I need to pass laws that affect (Wisor), so be it."
Many of the dozen or so residents who were permitted between three to five minutes to speak for or against a Just For Jesus compound in Snyder Township complained of a lack of staffing and said the facilities were not suitable for housing anyone.
Scarnati said there was a large amount of information presented by area residents and public safety officials in regard to the lack of security and sanitary conditions at the Just For Jesus compound.
"Now that this hearing is over, we need to work with the Jefferson County Commissioners and the Snyder Township Supervisors regarding these issues that were brought out tonight," he said. "My concern going into this was that Labor and Industry needs to come up and evaluate this facility, because, regardless if you are a religious organization or business, you have to abide by the fire and panic laws of Pennsylvania."
Scarnati said after hearing the comments that were spoken at Monday's hearing, he's concerned those laws are not being abided by.
Paul Corbin, Jefferson County Commission chairman, said that the commissioners need to sit down with Jim Dennison, Jefferson County solicitor, and Ed Ferraro, Snyder Township solicitor, along with the supervisors and discuss what should be done about the Just For Jesus compound.
“As we said here tonight, we don't want to just jump into this and be haphazard and jump into something and pass ordinances that will be challenged in court or bring lawsuits against the county and township," Corbin said, adding that the commission has to look at everything that was presented at the hearing and move forward.
Jefferson County Deputies were on guard throughout the hearing in case anyone became unruly.
Neither Wisor or anyone of his representatives was in attendance to address any of the issues that were discussed.