Criminal conviction against Phoenix pastor sentenced for ringing church bells overturned

State court reverses conviction after federal court ruled application of Phoenix noise ordinance unconstitutional
Tuesday, May 04, 2010

PHOENIX — An Arizona court Tuesday overturned the conviction of a Phoenix pastor, represented by Alliance Defense Fund attorneys, who was sentenced to jail for ringing church bells. The court reversed the conviction of Bishop Rick Painter of Christ the King Liturgical Charismatic Church in the wake of a federal court’s determination last month that the city noise ordinance under which he was convicted is unconstitutional when enforced against sounds generated in the course of religious expression, such as church bells. The ordinance offered an exemption for ice cream trucks, but not for churches.

“Pastors and churches shouldn’t live in fear of being punished or penalized by the government,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “Certainly, no pastor should have to fear jail time for engaging in peaceful religious expression.”

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.  First Christian Church of Phoenix, which wanted to repair and begin reusing its bell tower, feared it could also face prosecution.

Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed a federal lawsuit, St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish v. City of Phoenix, so the three churches could ring their bells without fear of future prosecution and criminal penalties for violating the ordinance. On April 19, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona ruled the ordinance unconstitutional when enforced against sounds such as church bells. First Christian Church was dismissed from the lawsuit.

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 existed for church bells.

“Churches shouldn’t be singled out for ringing their bells as a public expression of faith, as has been done for centuries, while ice cream trucks get a pass,” said Stanley.

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 federal court order eliminated those restrictions, and the order Tuesday in State of Arizona v. Painter from the Superior Court of Arizona, Maricopa County, clears Painter’s criminal record and the sentence against him.

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.