Alabama city exempts places of worship from noise law

Friday, August 20, 1999

An Alabama church has successfully persuaded city lawmakers to alter an ordinance it claimed violated speech and religious-liberty rights of its parishioners.

In late June, the Bay Community Church in Daphne, a town 11 miles east of Mobile, was fined $166 for violating the city's noise ordinance.

The ordinance was created in 1998 to “eliminate and reduce unnecessary and excessive noises which are detrimental to individuals and the community in the enjoyment of life, property and the conduct of business and private affairs.” Excessive noises from educational, recreational or construction work were exempt from the regulation.

The Bay Community Church, which is affiliated with evangelical churches throughout the country, had received complaints from neighbors about music emanating from its worship services.

City officials said they dropped the ticket and fine in early August because the church had taken steps to mute its music and no other complaints had been leveled. The American Center for Law and Justice, a national law firm that defends religious, conservative values, indicated it would still file a federal lawsuit against the city challenging the ordinance. The law group argued that since the ordinance exempted some groups but not religious ones it should be invalidated as an unconstitutional infringement upon churches' religious-liberty and free-speech rights.

Despite initial defenses offered for the regulation, the Daphne City Council amended its ordinance on Aug. 17 to exempt “places of religious worship.”

Stuart J. Roth, legal director for the ACLJ of Alabama, said that the City Council's action heads off any federal lawsuit.

“It has been our position from the outset that the Daphne noise ordinance was unconstitutional because it regulated speech based on its content and viewpoint,” Roth said. “The United States Supreme Court and federal courts throughout this nation have uniformly struck down governmental regulations with similar constitutional infirmities as Daphne's noise ordinance.”