St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church is being sued. The complaint targets the famous bell of the 104-year-old Gothic church which has rung for prayers, marriages, and other occasions for generations. Most residents associated the 5,000-pound bronze bell with their community but a resident has filed a complaint that silenced the bell under a threat of $700 per day if it rings in violation of the city’s noise ordinance.
The Rev. James A. Lyons, pastor of St. John’s, received the warning letter that informed him that
“Air Management Services (AMS) has received citizen’s complaints of loud amplified sounds from the above premises every day at 7 a.m. AMS would like to advise you that amplified sound and all other noise . . . shall not exceed five decibels above background level measured at the property boundary of the nearest occupied residential property.”
It is signed by Roger M. Fey, the city’s enforcement officer for air and noise pollution, but does not include the name of the complainant. However, the church did receive an earlier complaint from a woman who complained that the bell “was disrupting her quality of life.”
The church has actually reduced the call to prayer known by Catholics as the Angelus. It was silenced for a period due to the need for repairs but two local residents pitched in $20,000 to fix it and the familiar bell was heard again in January every hour on the hour – from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Technically, churches have no constitutional claim to trump noise ordinances. However, many laws have special provisions for religious bells and calls to the faithful. This issue has also come up in the context of mosques which call to the faithful five times a day.
Under the old standard of “coming to the nuisance,” such claims would be dismissed since the bell was pre-existing by over 100 years. That doctrine, however, has been eliminated. Now, you can move next to a church and then complain about the church bell. As shown in Rogers v. Elliott in 1888 , however, you must be able to show that a reasonable person would be injured by the sound. In that Massachusetts case, the bell ringer admitted that “he had no love for the plaintiff,” who claimed to suffer from convulsions at hearing the bell. However, the court ruled against him.
Under nuisance, the court can consider the value of the activity to the community and relative cost and benefits of the bell ringing.
In this case, common law nuisance is supplanted by an ordinance. If there is no exception for religious organizations, the matter becomes one of decibel measurements.