Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Church Bells, Free Speech, and the Code of the City of Charlottesville

A group of churches in Phoenix, Arizona is suing the city in a dispute centering on the churches' right to ring their bells. Jamie Ross, of Courthouse News Service, has the story here.

In June of this year, Bishop Rick Painter of Christ the King Church was sentenced to three years probation and ten days in jail for creating "an unreasonably loud, disturbing and unnecessary noise" in violation of Phoenix's noise ordinance. The jail sentence was suspended.

When another Phoenix church was warned about the possibility of being prosecuted if its bells violated the ordinance, it joined with Christ the King and a third church and brought suit alleging the city's ordinance is unconstitutionally vague, allows for arbitrary and subjective enforcement, and violates the congregants' free speech rights (in particular, the churches allege that the ordinance is not justified by a "compelling government interest" and is not advanced in the "least restrictive means available").

The churches brought suit in the federal district court for the District of Arizona, and the Wall Street Journal has made a copy of their Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief available online, here.

The Complaint makes for fasinating reading! In criticizing Phoenix's Noise Ordinance, the churches point out that -- in addition to an array of other problems -- the ordinance has no exception for church bells (in contrast with a number of others cities, including Houston and Cambridge).

I immediately became curious as to whether Charlottesville's noise ordinance contains an exception for church bells. Turns out that it does -- along with a list of other noises to which the ordinance does not apply. Chapter 16 of the Code of Charlottesville deals with "Noise Control," and Section 16-8(d) provides as follows:

"The following activities or sources of noise shall be exempt from the daytime prohibition set forth in subsection (b) of this section:
  1. Band performances or practices, athletic contests or practices and other school-sponsored activities on the grounds of public or private schools or the University of Virginia.
  2. Athletic contests and other officially sanctioned activities in city parks.
  3. Activities related to the construction, repair, maintenance, remodeling or demolition, grading or other improvement of real property.
  4. Gardening, lawn care, tree maintenance or removal and other landscaping activities.
  5. Church bells or carillons.
  6. Religious or political gatherings and other activities protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
  7. Activities for which the regulation of noise has been preempted by federal law.
  8. Public and private transportation, refuse collection and sanitation services."