Thursday, February 4, 2010
There seems to be a big church-state land use battle brewing in Arizona. From the Arizona Republic story Court hears arguments over church bell in Phoenix:
The arguing over the silencing of church bells grew louder in two Phoenix courtrooms on Monday.
The legal conflict centers on a church in north Phoenix. In 2008, it started to ring its bells 13 times a day, seven days a week, to the annoyance of its neighbors.
In May 2009 Phoenix Municipal Court Judge Lori Metcalf told the church, Cathedral of Christ the King, to pipe down.
The bells could ring, she said, but only once a week on Sunday morning.
She also found the church's leader, Bishop Rick Painter, guilty on two counts of disturbing the peace. He received a 10-day suspended sentence and three years' probation.
On Monday morning, a national Christian legal group, the Alliance Defense Fund, argued in U.S. District Court that the Phoenix noise ordinance is overly vague and unconstitutional.
The legal conflict centers around a city noise ordinance. The language of the Phoenix noise ordinance isn't at all uncommon, and is based on nuisance theory. In the "Nuisance and Noise" section, the Phoenix City Code sec. 23-12 reads:
"Subject to the provisions of this article the creating of any unreasonably loud, disturbing and unnecessary noise within the limits of the City is hereby prohibited."
Is the ordinance unconstitutionally vague? Does targeting church bells infringe on First Amendment free exercise, or RLUIPA? It's a generally-applicable rule, but the text certainly gives a wide berth of discretion to local government officials to make enforcement decisions under the "reasonableness" standard. Too much discretion, or necessary flexibility? That's the classic land use regulation debate, and the religious land use cases tend to bring this point out.
Either way, though, sentencing a bishop to (suspended) jail time in pursuit of nuisance code enforcement is pretty hard core. The battle is joined and it looks to be an interesting federal case.
UPDATE: Erik Stanley, the ADF attorney for the churches cited in the article, has a post in the comments section.