PHOENIX (CN) – Three churches say Phoenix is unconstitutionally prohibiting them from ringing their bells. A Catholic bishop was convicted and sentenced to 3 years probation and 10 days in jail – suspended – for violating a noise ordinance by ringing the carillon, according to the federal complaint. Christ the King Church says it has stopped ringing its bells “for fear of future prosecution.”
St. Mark’s Catholic Church, Christ the King Church and the First Christian Church want to ring “carillon bells from their locations … as part of their religious exercise, but fear that they will be prohibited from doing so,” the complaint states.
Bishop Rick Painter of Christ the King was sentenced on June 3 to a suspended jail sentence and probation after he rang the church’s bells.
On Aug. 24, two city prosecutors and two police officers warned St. Mark’s that it could be prosecuted, “if St. Mark did not reduce the amount of times that it rings its carillon to the satisfaction of certain neighbors,” according to the complaint.
Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said in an interview that if one or two neighbors complain about noise, police can enforce the ordinance.
“The noise ordinance is overly subjective,” Stanley said. “It allows city police to choose how they want to interpret it.”
The ordinance prohibits “any unreasonably loud, disturbing and unnecessary noise within” city limits, according to the complaint.
There are exemptions – such as excavations and repair work at night, reasonable use of loudspeakers, traffic, and devices that produce less than 70 decibels of sound.
“The bells represent a means of religious worship for the churches,” Stanley said. “They show the community the church is there, and for the Catholic churches they are also a reminder to pray.”
St. Mark says it has rung its bells for at least 20 years, every hour on the hour from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. It also peals its bells at noon and at 7:30 p.m. as a prayer reminder, and three times before each Mass.
First Christian Church rang its bells from noon to 5 p.m. until its electronic bell system broke.
Stanley says the decibel levels for the three churches are lower than that of an ice cream truck.
The churches seek nominal damages, declaratory judgment under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and a permanent injunction so they can ring their bells.
Use of bells for worship has been attributed to Moses, and the Catholic Church has rung bells since 400 A.D., according to “Oblates,” a periodical of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
For more than 1,500 years, church bells have summoned the faithful, warned the community of danger and have rung to announce a death in the community and “reminded the faithful to pray for a happy death,” Oblates reported.