Three churches have filed a lawsuit against the city of Phoenix, charging that its noise ordinance which prohibits the ringing of their church bells is unconstitutional and suppresses a long American tradition. One pastor was sentenced to jail for violating the ordinance, which allows an exception for ice cream trucks but not for churches.
St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish, First Christian Church, and Christ the King Liturgical Charismatic Church have challenged the ordinance in a lawsuit filed by attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF).
Christ the King Church joined the lawsuit after its pastor, Bishop Rick Painter, was sentenced for ringing his church’s bells as a way of praising God. He was given a suspended sentence of ten days in jail and three years’ probation on June 3.
“The church bells chime a short, ancient melody of praise to God no louder than an average conversation,” Bishop Stanley explained. “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.”
A judge has issued an order restricting chimes at the church to no more than 60 decibels for two minutes on Sundays and specific religious holidays.
An ADF statement reports that the bells at Bishop Painter’s church normally chime every hour from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Their volume has been registered as emitting 67 decibels at the nearest property line. By comparison, a whisper is 30 decibels and a normal conversation runs from 60 to 70 decibels.
Under an exception to the ordinance, ice cream trucks are allowed to emit sounds of up to 70 decibels at a distance of 50 feet.
In August, after a neighbor complained about the bells, city officials told St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish that ringing its bells could be considered in violation of the same noise ordinance. The officials included two representatives from the Phoenix city prosecutor’s office and two city police officers.
St. Mark has rung its bells for the last 20 years. Christians have used church bells since at least the early middle ages.
ADF senior legal counsel Erik Stanley explained the suit, saying that churches shouldn’t be published “for exercising their faith publicly.”
He charged that 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,” Stanley said.
The suit seeks to ensure that the churches can ring their bells without fear of future prosecution and criminal penalties.