Three churches in Phoenix have brought a legal action against the city because one pastor already has been convicted and other churches are being threatened over the “noise” from their bells, some of which have rung out to the community for decades.

The lawsuit has been filed by the Alliance Defense Fund on behalf of St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish, First Christian Church and Christ the King Liturgical Charismatic Church.

Bishop Rick Painter, sentenced for allowing church bells to ring

The dispute focuses on the city ordinance that even city officials have conceded is vague, according to the lawsuit. Nevertheless, on the strength of neighbors’ complaints and the existing statute, one pastor already has been convicted and sentenced for violating the city ordinance with church bells. The complaint alleges others now also are threatened.

City officials said they could not comment because they had not been served with the complaint, which has been posted on the Internet.

“Churches shouldn’t be punished for exercising their faith publicly,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “The law is unconstitutionally vague and has been abused to silence a form of worship that has peacefully sounded through the streets of our nation since its founding.

“No one should be sentenced to jail and probation for doing what churches have traditionally done throughout history, especially when the sound of the church’s bells does not exceed the noise level that the law allows for ice cream trucks,” he said.

The complaint notes that city officials wrote into the noise ordinance an exemption allowing ice cream trucks to play loud music, but refused to include a similar exemption for churches.

The case alleges violations of the constitutional provisions for freedom of speech, due process and free exercise of religion.

It was Bishop Rick Painter of Christ the King Church who was convicted and sentenced earlier.

By court order the electronic chimes that used to be heard ringing each day now also are restricted to Sundays and special occasions. Painter was given three years probation and a suspended 10-day jail sentence.

“After convicting and sentencing Painter to jail for ringing church bells, city officials notified St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish in August that the ringing of its bells could be considered in violation of the same noise ordinance,” the ADF said. “Two representatives from the Phoenix city prosecutor’s office and two Phoenix police officers visited St. Mark after one neighbor complained about the bells. St. Mark has rung its bells for the last 20 years. Both churches, along with the First Christian Church of Phoenix, are filing the lawsuit so that they can ring their bells without fear of future prosecution and criminal penalties for violating the ordinance.”

The case documents that the bells at Painter’s church were recorded at 67 decibels from the nearest property line, while a whisper was measured at 30 decibels and a normal conversation ranged between 60 and 70 decibels.

“Ice cream trucks are allowed to emit up to 70 decibels at a distance of 50 feet under an exemption to the city’s ordinance, but no exemption exists for church bells,” the case writes.

“The church bells chime a short, ancient melody of praise to God no louder than an average conversation,” said Stanley. “It’s true that people can hear the bells at that low level. After all, bells are meant to be heard. But the city’s problematic ordinance is being used to inconsistently single out the peaceful sound of this time-honored expression of worship while allowing exceptions for others.”

The case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, was accompanied by a motion asking the court to halt enforcement of the ordinance while the lawsuit moves forward.

The ADF also has filed an appeal of Painter’s conviction.

The civil rights lawsuit explains, “These churches want to ring carillon bells from their locations in the city of Phoenix as part of their religious exercise, but fear that they will be prohibited from doing so under a facially unconstitutional noise ordinance.”

The churches use their music “as a way of evangelizing by notifying anyone
nearby that the church is there and is a place of hope, help, and prayer” and to continue “a centuries-old church
tradition of ringing bells as a way of glorifying God.”

The lawsuit notes that the offending “noise” that generated complaints for Painter’s church included a “16-beat melody taken from Handel’s Messiah.”

It alleges the noise ordinance is unconstitutionally vague, subjective, is content-based and is not neutral.

When his case was being argued, Painter defended the bells as a constitutionally protected freedom of religion issue.

“We’re expressing our religion,” he told KNXV. “We glorify God by the bells.”

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