In Ariz., church bells silenced by City Hall

By Nicholas Riccardi
Los Angeles Times / July 19, 2009
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PHOENIX - After nearly 20 years on an impersonal commercial strip, the Cathedral of Christ the King moved to a quiet residential neighborhood in the northwestern edge of this metropolis. Church leaders were eager to be part of a community.

Then, on Palm Sunday 2008, they started ringing the church bells every half-hour during the day.

The complaints soon began, so church leaders cut back the tolling to once per hour. They put up Styrofoam to muffle the sound. But they didn’t see how they could stop tolling the bells. “We ring our bells as a part of our worship, just like singing, praying, and preaching the Word of God,’’ they wrote in a statement.

The only force that could silence the bells was City Hall.

Prosecutors filed two charges against the head of the church, and last month Bishop Rick Painter, 67, was convicted of disturbing the peace.

Some communities, wary of bells, parochial schools, and bustle, have tried to keep out churches with zoning changes and public hearings. But officials with the Alliance Defense Fund, a religious liberties legal group representing the church, said the case is the first they know of in which criminal law has been used to keep a church quiet.

“It’s frankly a little bit astonishing,’’ said ADF attorney Gary S. McCaleb, contending the case violates the church’s First Amendment freedom to practice its religion. “It’s very clearly an expression and outworking of their faith.’’

But Phoenix officials and some of the church’s neighbors see it differently. “It wasn’t an isolated incident. It happened repeatedly,’’ said City Prosecutor Aaron Carreon-Ainsa. Al Brooks, who lives behind the church, offered a more vivid description. “We were living in a bell tower.’’

The Cathedral of Christ the King sits on a busy thoroughfare just off Interstate 17, but immediately behind it spreads a typically tranquil Phoenix subdivision of ranch homes. The functional square chapel is flanked by several smaller, detached buildings.

A 21st-century equivalent of a bell tower sits atop its two-story school building, an electronic device that replicates a church bell’s sound over loudspeakers.

When the church, which identifies as Anglo-Catholic, moved to the site in late 2007, it spent months renovating the buildings. With construction generating so much noise, the church held off tolling its bell until Palm Sunday.

Church staff distributed fliers to notify neighbors. “The idea was to invite people to the church,’’ Deacon James Lee said in an interview in the church’s offices.

“We’re here to be a neighborhood church,’’ Painter added.