Churches sue city of Phoenix over ordinance prohibiting ringing of church bells

ADF attorneys represent Valley churches over disputed noise ordinance
Wednesday, September 02, 2009

PHOENIX — Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday against the city of Phoenix on behalf of three churches, claiming that a noise ordinance prohibiting the ringing of their bells is unconstitutional. St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish, First Christian Church, and Christ the King Liturgical Charismatic Church have challenged the vague noise ordinance because it offers an exemption for ice cream trucks but not for churches.  Christ the King Church joined in the lawsuit after its pastor, Bishop Rick Painter, was sentenced to jail for violating a city ordinance for ringing his church’s bells as a way of praising God.

“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.”

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. 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 bells at Painter’s church normally chime every hour from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and have been registered to emit only 67 decibels from the nearest property line. A whisper is 30 decibels, and a normal conversation is about 60 to 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. When Painter was given a suspended sentence of 10 days in jail and three years’ probation on June 3, 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 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 traditionally rung bells at St. Mark and First Christian chime in a similar fashion and frequency, and so are also in danger under the ordinance. The lawsuit, St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish v. City of Phoenix, was filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona together with a motion asking the court to halt enforcement of the ordinance while the lawsuit moves forward. The criminal case against Painter, State of Arizona v. Painter, is on appeal. ADF attorneys filed their appellate brief in that case with the Arizona Superior Court for Maricopa County on Aug. 17.

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.