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Phoenix church bells declared disturbers of the peace

A bishop gets a 10-day sentence (suspended) after noise complaints from neighbors. A Christian legal group has vowed to appeal.

July 15, 2009|Nicholas Riccardi

PHOENIX — After nearly 20 years on an impersonal commercial strip, the Cathedral of Christ the King moved to a quiet residential neighborhood in the northwestern edge of this metropolis. Church leaders were eager to be part of a community.

Then, on Palm Sunday 2008, they started ringing the church bells every half hour during the day.

The complaints soon began, so church leaders cut back the tolling to once per hour. They put up Styrofoam to muffle the sound. But they didn't see how they could stop tolling the bells. "We ring our bells as a part of our worship, just like singing, praying and preaching the Word of God," they wrote in a statement.

The only force that could silence the bells was City Hall.

Prosecutors filed two charges against the head of the church, and last month Bishop Rick Painter, 67, was convicted of disturbing the peace.

Some communities, wary of bells, parochial schools and bustle, have tried to keep out churches with zoning changes and public hearings. But officials with the Alliance Defense Fund, a religious liberties legal group representing the church, said the case is the first they know of in which criminal law has been used to keep a church quiet.

"It's frankly a little bit astonishing," said alliance attorney Gary S. McCaleb, contending the case violates the church's 1st Amendment freedom to practice its religion. "It's very clearly an expression and outworking of their faith."

But Phoenix officials and some of the church's neighbors see it differently. "It wasn't an isolated incident. It happened repeatedly," said City Prosecutor Aaron Carreon-Ainsa.

Al Brooks, who lives behind the church, offered a more vivid description. "We were living in a bell tower."

The Cathedral of Christ the King sits on a busy thoroughfare just off Interstate 17, but immediately behind it spreads a typically tranquil Phoenix subdivision of ranch homes. The functional square chapel is flanked by several smaller, detached buildings.

A 21st century equivalent of a bell tower sits atop its school building, an electronic device that replicates a church bell's sound over loudspeakers.

When the church moved to the site in late 2007, it spent months renovating the buildings. With construction generating so much noise, the church held off tolling its bell until Palm Sunday.

Church staff distributed fliers to notify neighbors. "The idea was to invite people to the church," Deacon James Lee said in an interview in the church's offices.

"We're here to be a neighborhood church," Painter added.

Because of an error, the first bells rang at 6 a.m. on Palm Sunday rather than at 7 a.m. as intended. The bells rang the hours and sometimes played hymns. They rang for no longer than one minute and fifty seconds, every half-hour, until 9 p.m. Neighbors soon began coming in to talk to the church.

Painter said the church was sensitive to the complaints. They eventually cut back to hourly bells, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. They took a sound reading and found the bell registered 67 decibels -- the volume of a regular conversation.

Some neighbors liked the bells, church leaders said. They heard from people who set their clocks by it, and a postman who used it to time his rounds.

But, Brooks pointed out, none of those people lived next to the bells. He and other immediate neighbors contacted a company that manufactures electronic church bells to ask what distance they should be played from residences. The response: 400 feet.

Brooks' house is 40 feet from the building with the bells.

The Phoenix city prosecutor's office took up the case.

The office filed 774 noise cases last year, but Carreon-Ainsa said he's unaware of any others targeting churches. He said the case was handled like any other noise complaint. "It really doesn't matter if it was a church or a person next door ringing the bells."

The trial in front of a municipal court judge lasted only a few hours. In the end, Judge Lori Metcalf gave Painter a 10-day sentence -- suspended as long as the bells remained quiet and the bishop stayed out of trouble.

She permitted the ringing of bells only on Sundays and certain church holidays.

The Alliance Defense Fund has vowed to appeal.

McCaleb noted that the law includes an exemption for commercial vehicles such as ice cream trucks but not for religious institutions.

Since the June 3 ruling, the bells have remained silent, even on Sundays. Painter does not want to risk jail should they toll too loudly or at the wrong time. "We miss them," he said.

Brooks, on the other hand, is cheered by the silence, though he's a bit startled at the threat of incarceration hanging over the bishop's head. "We didn't want the man to go to jail," he said. "We just wanted the bells to stop."


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