Church Bells Ring in Case of Religious Freedom vs. Homeowners

The fight, pitting religious freedom against the right to be comfortable in one's own home, started in March 2008 -- on Palm Sunday.

After opening in a new location in Phoenix, Ariz., The Cathedral of Christ the King started playing a recording of church bells every half hour -- every day -- from morning to night.

"To me, it is one of the ways that we express praise and worship to God. And it is also one of the ways that God speaks out and says to the community that there is somebody here that cares," said Bishop Rick Painter, rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King, a local Charismatic church affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America.

To neighbors like Sam Jensen and Al Brooks, it was a rude shock.

"I didn't know where it came from. It was six in the morning," said Brooks. "I had no idea what it was. And then they were playing every half hour, so it woke me up and I came out into the back yard and then I heard them again every half hour all day long -- 31 times that day," said Jensen.

After calling the cops, they had a heated meeting with Painter, who offered to reduce the ringing to once an hour.

"I can't imagine that God in heaven would look down and say that's a good thing to do to your neighbors," said Jensen.

"We all celebrate God, but we don't disturb our neighbors doing it," Brooks said.

The neighbors felt the church was inflexible, and inevitably the case landed in court, where the judge sided with the neighbors.

She ordered the bells silenced, except on Sundays and church holidays. For the first time anyone can remember, a religious leader was convicted of disturbing the peace. The bishop was given a 10-day jail sentence, which was suspended, and three years probation -- a misdemeanor for ringing church bells.

"On a regular basis, this particular location was, in fact, playing very loud music. Not regular bells, it was a broadcast device on an hourly basis -- to a point where it was disturbing. And at the end of the day we are talking about quality of life," said Deborah Sedillo Dugan, spokesperson for the city of Phoenix.

Bishop Fights Back

Painter is now not only appealing his conviction, but he's suing the city of Phoenix in federal court. He argues that the noise ordinance is unconstitutionally stifling the church's freedom of religion.

"I was surprised that I was charged with a crime," Painter said. "I don't see where I have broken a law… Now I am a criminal, after all my years."

He says Phoenix's noise ordinance has an exception for things like ice cream trucks, and that the church should have the same immunity.

For now, while the neighbors are content, Painter is praying for a change.

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