For Whom the Bell Tolls: City Silences Bell in 104-Year-Old Gothic Church

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.

Source: Philly

Jonathan Turley

8 thoughts on “For Whom the Bell Tolls: City Silences Bell in 104-Year-Old Gothic Church”

  1. The calls to the faithful, be they from bell towers or minarets should just be left alone. They’re part of the civilizing aspect of city living. In a city, you learn to accommodate different things. Amplified call that extend beyond the localized community being served are just rude but neighborhood churches and mosques that don’t stray into rudeness aren’t exactly a major issue if people have their heads on right. Move to the county if you can’t take he noise anymore, I did. The city is just being a city, get in step or go elsewhere and commute IMO. That may not be a workable template for everyone or every situation but it works as a general rule.

  2. I wonder how long before someone files a complaint about the Muslim call to prayer? How much sympathy will that engender?

    I grew up about 2 blocks from the local Catholic franchise. For years they had a bell and it wasn’t obnoxious but in the late 60’s the went to an electronic system that was way too loud, over driving the speakers to the point of distortion. Neighbors from several blocks away complained & they did turn it down so it was only annoyingly loud.

  3. I don’t see any reason why churches should automatically get special treatment on this. I can see giving them a variance to ring the bells for holidays, but a community should also have the right to reject hourly bell ringing, or to limit how loud the bells may be.

  4. Blouise,

    Shuuuuushh. That was annoying, now I know, just like in CPS cases I can file anonymous complaints……

  5. “for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (John Donne)

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist ….

  6. How come this was not “Grandfathered” in? I wonder how many stores in that city that have not altered its building have fire sprinklers?

    Bullshit comes to mind.

  7. I have long held that this kind of complaint should have the name of the complainant(s) attached to the complaint. I assume the complainant first became aware of the bell less than 104 years ago, so the doctrine of coming to the nuisance ought to apply.

    There have been any number of cases of homeowners who build a house at the end of an airport runway, and then want to shut the airport down, or force pilots to engage in unsafe power reductions on takeoff for noise abatement. I don’t know a lot about bells, but I know they sound nice and I like them. As for throttling back on my power at the most critical and potentially dangerous time of a flight just so the sound of my engine does not rattle the dishes at your house. You know, the house you stupidly built right at the end of the runway, and then acted surprised when airplanes actually USED the runway. The whole issue seems to me like a combination of mean spirtedness and selfishness. Scrooge lives!

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