Before I attended seminary and pastored for three decades I was a zoning administrator for a mid-sized city/county planning agency. As a twentysomething bureaucrat in his first post-college job, part of my responsibility was to inform property owners, real estate developers, and other interested citizens what could and could not be done with a particular piece of property.
“No, Donald Trump, you cannot build a towering condo on that property.”
Actually, Trump was interested in Manhattan not Athens, Georgia, so we never had such a conversation. It was more like, “No, ma’am. I’m sorry, but the residential zoning for your house prohibits your having a beauty shop in your basement.”
Zoning laws are an expression of the police power of the state and next year America will celebrate (or mourn) the centennial of such laws, New York city applying in 1916 such city-wide in response to a building that neighbors thought objectionable. Almost all municipalities have them and they serve a public purpose. Yeah, I am aware that the city of Houston lacks zoning laws but they make up for it in other ways.
But check the zoning case that some are calling a heavy-handed attempt to shut down a church
- New Orleans Times-Picayune article by Danielle Drellinger: Is this Louisiana church’s services too loud? Yes, authorities say.
- Baptist Press article by Brian Blackwell, Church tent noise level now a religious liberty test
- Ed Stetzer article on Christianity Today site: Vintage church fights to stay open amidst neighbor complaints and critical summons
The Drellinger article summarizes the case succinctly:
A Metairie church is suing Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand after deputies cited its pastor for an excessively noisy worship service. In a four-month dispute with its residential neighbors, Vintage Church says the Sheriff’s Office enforcement violates its members’ religious rights under Louisiana law and the U.S. Constitution.
Vintage and executive pastor Matthew Brichetto sued the sheriff and Jefferson Parish government in the 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna, seeking a temporary injunction to keep their services going in a tent in the church’s parking lot. The court filings detail a history of trouble with police over Vintage’s tent services, spurred by the complaints of what the church’s attorneys say is a single disgruntled neighbor.
I’ve been in a few heated zoning hearings and there is little outrage like that of neighbors who oppose a particular business or proposed business. Some of this is good old American NIMBY on display. In this case the church is worshiping in a tent and at least one neighbor calls 911 because it is too loud.
I’ve been in a few church services where the sound was so loud I thought about calling 911. I don’t mind loud but for crying out loud, pastor and music leader, there’s nothing spiritual about jacking up the sermon or music volume. I sensibly carry ear plugs and use them occasionally. I think it prudent to keep the state out of my complaning.
At least once, I’ve seen bogus church complaints about zoning and attendant regulations but this case looks legitimate, with a couple of wrinkles not found in the links above. But you read the secular news article and think about how it would look to you for law enforcement people to show up every Sunday with decibel meters and check the sound levels. One Sunday the pastor was fingerprinted, perhaps a first in American church life.
More on the case:
The church hired audio consultants to ensure the sound stayed within legal limits, and though a neighbor kept complaining, officers found no further violations for a few weeks. But on Nov. 12, a Sheriff’s Office captain said Brichetto could not use a microphone when he spoke and threatened to arrest him. Three days later, Normand himself came to the Sunday service with six officers and “found the sound levels were above 60 decibels without any amplification at all.”
That finding effectively keeps Vintage from having any church services at all, which violates the state’s Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, the lawsuit says. Brichetto “cannot minister to the congregation without music and preaching,” the suit says. It criticizes Jefferson officials for constantly changing their demands and imposing “burden after burden.” State law prohibits government from burdening a person’s religious worship even if the ordinance being enforced was designed to be neutral.
Further, the church says the parish law violates federal rights to free expression and is unconstitutionally vague. It says the ordinance is confusing and has arbitrary definitions of events requiring a permit, which encourages spot enforcement, and that the 60-decibel limit is ridiculously low.
I suggest that the church would fare better by looking at what their counsel is saying. If the quotes here are accurate they may not be helpful:
While the sheriff said he has received letters and complaints about the noise from a number of residents, [plaintiff’s attorney] Bowes insisted the dispute has been driven by “one lady who doesn’t want to hear about God.” The church, he said, can “prove” the woman does not merely wish to sleep in and that she’s “up and at ’em by 9.” Bowes, without naming the woman, said he wouldn’t want to be “facing Jesus being her right now.”
“There’s a demon who is giving this lady an uncomfortableness, meaning the darkness doesn’t like the light,” Bowes said. “The bottom line is the devil, a demonic obsession if you will, has caused this lady to want to strike out at the church.”
Which brings me to one of Plodder’s sage observations of American church life: A church’s neighbors will often dislike the church. Sometimes the neighbors have good reasons. Sometimes not.
The neighbors of couple of my congregations really didn’t like the church, although I made a concerted effort to be friendly, neighborly and reasonable. Then there was the one neighbor that kept a bunch of mangy dogs and had rats crawling all over his back lot which was adjacent to our church parking lot. What a squalid, noisy, unhealthy mess. But we ;ived with it until we eventually made him happy by buying him out and making our property dog and rat free.
I think zoning laws are generally good for the public. But sometimes they can be unreasonable. When they conflict with freedom of religion, I trust sensible judges to resolve the conflict and balance the competing constitutional issues. But this case appears intensely personal to the church and her neighbors and I hope they are able to work their conflict out without more rancor.
Until it’s resolved, I recommend the church not send the choir over to their neighbor to sing “Silent Night.”