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Let freedom ring! Court rules city of Phoenix can’t stop church bells

ADF attorneys secure favorable ruling prohibiting city from enforcing unconstitutional noise ordinance silencing religious expression

PHOENIX — Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys secured a favorable decision Monday on behalf of Phoenix churches, with the court ruling that the city of Phoenix cannot enforce its noise ordinance to prohibit “sound generated in the course of religious expression.” A federal judge held that the ordinance against religious bell sounds--which offered an exemption for ice cream trucks, but not for church bells--violated the Constitution. 

St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish, Christ the King Liturgical Charismatic Church, and First Christian Church sued the city last September over its vague noise ordinance, and the court ordered its suspension in March, until a final ruling was issued.  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 targeted and punished for ringing their bells as a public expression of faith that’s been done for centuries,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “The federal court has made the right decision by declaring that the city’s noise ordinance violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

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. First Christian Church has a very recognizable bell tower in North Phoenix, which it wanted to repair and begin to use, but it refrained out of fear of criminal prosecution. The churches filed the lawsuit so that they could 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 existed 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. Now, after the court order, there are no restrictions on when the churches can ring their church bells.

The lawsuit, St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish v. City of Phoenix, was filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. First Christian Church of Phoenix was originally involved in the federal suit, but the court dismissed it from the case in March. The criminal case against Painter, State of Arizona v. Painter, is currently on appeal. 

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.