Court: Let the bells ring while Phoenix churches’ suit proceeds

ADF attorneys secure order on behalf of Valley churches keeping city from enforcing problematic noise ordinance
Thursday, March 04, 2010

PHOENIX — Alliance Defense Fund attorneys secured a federal court order Wednesday that silences a city of Phoenix noise ordinance used to stop the ringing of church bells. St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish and Christ the King Liturgical Charismatic Church sued the city last September over its vague noise ordinance, which offers an exemption for ice cream trucks, but not for churches.  The lawsuit came about after Bishop Rick Painter of Christ the King was sentenced to jail and probation last June for violating the ordinance by ringing his church’s bells as a traditional way of praising God.

“Churches shouldn’t be punished for publicly exercising their faith in a way that’s been done for centuries,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “We are pleased that the federal court has recognized the unconstitutional nature of this vague law used to single out churches, and we commend its decision to keep the city from enforcing this problematic noise ordinance while the lawsuit continues.”

Painter was convicted and sentenced to jail for ringing church bells, even after his church went to great lengths to compromise with the few local residents who filed complaints. City officials then notified St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish last August that the ringing of its bells could be considered in violation of the same noise ordinance even though it has rung its bells for the last 20 years. Two representatives from the Phoenix City Prosecutor’s office and two Phoenix police officers visited St. Mark after one neighbor complained about the bells. Both churches filed 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 chimed 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 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 lawsuit, St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish v. City of Phoenix, was filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, along with the 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. Both cases were heard on Feb. 1. First Christian Church of Phoenix was also involved in the federal suit, but the court dismissed them from the case Wednesday.

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.