WASHINGTON (RNS) — A federal court on April 19 ruled an ordinance in Phoenix, Ariz., trying to limit the sound of church bells is an unconstitutional impingement on religious expression.
In 2007, one day after Christ the King Cathedral moved two miles from its former location to a space near a fire station, neighbors complained the church’s electronic bells — rung every hour, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. — violated the city’s noise ordinance.
The ordinance, which prohibits “any unusual or disturbing” sound, also allows ice cream trucks to ring at 70 decibels. The church’s bells rang at 67 decibels.
“This is almost unheard of in American law,” said Gary McCaleb, an attorney with the conservative Alliance Defense Fund legal firm, who worked on the case.
Sgt. Tommy Thompson of the Phoenix Police Department agreed that the complaint was fairly “unusual,” but said the hourly ringing of the bells made Christ the King perhaps a bit different from other churches.
“We value the First Amendment,” Thompson said April 21. “But then we have the city ordinance. We were stuck in the middle.”
Although the church attempted to appease neighbors by erecting a buffer on its speakers and passing out informational flyers, the city filed a misdemeanor complaint last year. The church’s pastor, Bishop Rick Painter, was found guilty in city court and sentenced to 10 days in jail and three years probation, though he never served time in jail.
When Painter appealed that decision, a state court limited the chiming to Sundays and designated holidays, and set a limit of 60 decibels. Two nearby churches, St. Mark Roman Catholic Church and First Christian Church, joined Painter in a federal lawsuit last September.
On April 19, the federal court ruled in favor of the church bells, saying the city cannot prohibit “sound generated in the course of religious expression.”
The ADF’s next stop is the state court, where the verdict against Painter is already on appeal. “We want to have the state court clear the bishop’s name,” McCaleb said.