Bishop Rick Painter, sentenced for allowing church bells to ring
A federal judge in Arizona has struck down a Phoenix noise ordinance against sounds generated by religious worship – settling one part of a dispute that erupted when city officials convicted a bishop and sentenced him to a suspended jail sentence and several years of probation because someone complained about the ringing of his church bells.
“Churches shouldn’t be targeted and punished for ringing their bells as a public expression of faith that’s been done for centuries,” said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which worked on the case.
“The federal court has made the right decision by declaring that the city’s noise ordinance violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments,” he said.
The federal judge, Susan R. Bolton, ruled that the city’s ordinance was being used to prohibit “sound generated in the course of religious expression,” even while it contained an exemption for ice-cream trucks to blare their promotions.
The case had been brought by St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish, Christ the King Liturgical Charismatic Church and First Christian Church. The court earlier issued a temporary order and today made that permanent.
“It is ordered granting plaintiffs’ request for a permanent injunction, and permanently enjoining Defendant City of Phoenix from enforcing the Noise Ordinance … against any sound generated in the course of religious expression,” the order said.
“It is further ordered granting plaintiffs’ request for a declaratory judgment, declaring that the Noise Ordinance … when enforced against any sound generated in the course of religious expression, violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
The dispute heated up when Bishop Rick Painter of Christ the King was sentenced to jail and probation in June 2009 for violating the ordinance by ringing his church’s bells.
According to ADF, Painter’s church had gone “to great lengths to compromise with the few local residents who filed complaints.”
Then, said ADF, city officials notified St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish in August that ringing its bells could violate the same ordinance.
“Two representatives from the Phoenix city prosecutor’s office and two Phoenix police officers visited St. Mark after one neighbor complained about the bells. First Christian Church has a very recognizable bell tower in North Phoenix, which it wanted to repair and begin to use, but it refrained out of fear of criminal prosecution. The churches filed the lawsuit so that they could ring their bells without fear of future prosecution and criminal penalties for violating the ordinance,” the ADF report said.
Painter’s conviction came after the bells were measured at 67 decibels at the nearest property line. The ADF said a whisper is 30 decibels and a normal conversation ranges about 60 to 70.
But the city specifically allowed ice-cream trucks a higher level of sound.
“When Painter was given a suspended sentence of 10 days in jail and three years’ probation last June, the judge issued an order restricting chimes at the church to no more than 60 decibels for two minutes on Sundays and specific religious holidays,” the ADF said.
The order removes those limits.
The ADF said the criminal case against Painter currently is on appeal.
The judge, in issuing the temporary order earlier, had wondered about the neutrality of the restrictions since the city’s ban specifically states that ice-cream trucks only can play “pleasing melodies.” They also are allowed to generate 70 decibels.
“The noise ordinance at issue here contains exemptions that require
the enforcing party to examine the expressive conduct to determine whether it falls within … the scope of the law. For instance, to decide whether a public
address is noncommercial, the listener must review the content of the speech. The
so-called ‘ice-cream-truck exemption’ also requires the enforcing party to listen
to the content of the sound to determine whether it is a ‘pleasing melody,’” the court said.
“To enforce the city’s noise ordinance, an officer needs
to apply subjective standards (e.g., is a melody pleasing or not?) and listen carefully to the
sound (e.g., is this a commercial address or not?). On account of the character of these
exemptions, the court finds that the noise ordinance is content-based,” she wrote.
WND previously reported on a series of attacks on Christian churches elsewhere around the world based on noise ordinances.
All Nations church, silenced by neighbors’ complaints about ‘noise’
The Christian Legal Centre in the U.K. reported a “last-minute out-of-court settlement” that allowed a 600-member church in London to continue its worship.
The Lambeth Council had issued a noise-abatement notice to the All Nations Centre in Kennington, which prevented the church from using any amplification for its worship music and its pastor’s preaching.
No allowance was made for any of the seniors in the congregation, some of whom have hearing difficulties, officials said.
Onn Sein Kon, case manager at the Christian Legal Centre, said the organization has noticed an increasing number of attacks on churches because someone can hear Christian worship.
“Regrettably, our caseload is increasing with councils issuing noise-abatement notices as a means of curtailing or closing churches in London,” Kon said. “What is really going on here is action by secularists to try and restrict Christian freedom and expression in this country.”
The legal organization said another church, Immanuel House of Worship in London, also has been “silenced” by the government because the sound of its worship drew a complaint from a single Muslim neighbor.
The Christian organization called Barnabas Aid also is reporting similar tactics are appearing in Africa.
“The government of Senegal has recently launched a campaign to close down a number of churches, on the grounds that their services are too noisy. Congregations that do not own their own premises are being targeted. Several have had their public worship suspended, and others are under threat,” the ministry report said.