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Religious freedom returns to Phoenix

David Epps's picture

In June of last year, as I reported in this column at the time, a Phoenix, Ariz., bishop received a suspended sentence of 10 days in jail and three years probation for violating a Phoenix noise ordinance because his church rang its bells hourly as a way of praising God. Bishop Rick Painter of the Cathedral of Christ the King (a man with whom I am personally acquainted) retained attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund to pursue legal options to defend his rights.

“Christians shouldn’t be punished for exercising their faith publicly,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley at the time. (Much of the information for this article was obtained at www.alliancedefensefund.org) “It’s ridiculous to be sentenced to jail and probation for doing what churches have traditionally done throughout history, especially when the sound of the church’s bells did not exceed the noise level that the law allows for ice cream trucks.”

The bells had 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 were 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.

“The church bells chime a short, ancient melody of praise to God,” said Stanley. “It’s too bad that the value of the bells is lost on many in our society. In a busy neighborhood full of sirens, heavy traffic, and loud motorcycles, these chimes are a sound of peace that do not exceed the noise level of an average conversation. Certainly, that should be at least as acceptable as the sound of an ice cream truck.”

But, a few days ago, an Arizona court overturned the conviction of Bishop Painter in the wake of a federal court’s determination last month that the city noise ordinance under which he was convicted is unconstitutional when enforced against sounds generated in the course of religious expression, such as church bells.

“Pastors and churches shouldn’t live in fear of being punished or penalized by the government,” said Erik Stanley. “Certainly, no pastor should have to fear jail time for engaging in peaceful religious expression.”

Painter was convicted and sentenced to jail even after his church went to great lengths to compromise with the few local residents who filed complaints. On April 19, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona ruled the ordinance unconstitutional when enforced against sounds such as church bells.

When Painter was sentenced 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. The federal court order eliminated those restrictions, and the order Tuesday in State of Arizona v. Painter from the Superior Court of Arizona, Maricopa County, clears Painter’s criminal record and the sentence against him.

While it is sad that religious freedom, especially for Christians, is continually being eroded, the court’s decision was correct and based solidly on historical precedence and the Constitution. It is especially gratifying that the decision came just prior to Memorial Day when the nation honors those who died so these very freedoms may be preserved and perpetuated. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

[David Epps is the founding pastor The Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277, between Peachtree City and Newnan (www.ctkcec.org). Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. He is also the bishop to the Mid-South Diocese (ICCEC) and is the mission pastor of Christ the King Church in Champaign, IL. He may be contacted at frepps@ctkcec.org. A website is available at www.midsouthdiocese.org.]

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