First Amendment outrage of the week: City’s limit on church attendance out of line

Wednesday, February 16, 2000

Periodically, identifies a “First Amendment Outrage of the Week,” recognizing the single act or gesture most offensive to the spirit of free speech, free press and free expression.

Original story
  • Hundreds demonstrate against limit on church attendance

  • Imagine limiting football-game attendance to 70 fans because of past disturbances in the neighborhood. That’s sort of what happened in Portland, Ore., recently, except that a city official unwisely targeted something even more basic: religious worship.

    Portland land-use hearing officer Elizabeth Normand told a church in January that henceforth no more than 70 churchgoers could worship there on Sunday. She also took away permission to serve two weekly meals at the Sunnyside Centenary United Methodist Church. Why? Because neighbors were complaining of noise and nuisance near their homes by people receiving the meals.

    More than 1,100 people of all faiths protested the decision by gathering at a different Methodist church on Feb. 13. In speech, prayer and song, they affirmed their First Amendment rights to assemble and to worship. The city fortunately now shows signs of backing down.

    This is a story about judgment and proportion in public governance. In trying to respond to public complaints and problems, and in trying to do the right thing, governments sometimes reach for the wrong remedy. In this case, instead of treating this case as a neighborhood problem requiring a neighborhood solution, the city official reared back and fired a cannon blast at the Constitution.

    What was she thinking? Was a police officer supposed to station himself at the church door with a clicker, and thrust his arm out to stop worshipper No. 71 from entering?

    You don’t suspend free exercise of religion to stop street noise. Such a move doesn’t fit, apply or make sense as a solution. The solution is for neighborhood groups, backed by the city if necessary, to work with the church — as in fact the church has shown itself more than willing to do with volunteer foot patrols and other efforts to reduce problems in the neighborhood.

    Government at all levels need to keep the big things in mind when dealing with the smaller things.

    It’s easy to get caught up in the plight of irate residents whose peace is being disturbed. It’s can be difficult to negotiate compromises.

    But it’s downright outrageous to unthinkingly violate fundamental freedoms under a mistaken notion that government’s top priority is to stop angry phone calls from residents.

    A church that tries hard to minister to a congregation may indeed draw a big crowd, and has a right to. If some in that crowd get out of hand, residents have a right to complain — petition, after all, is also a First Amendment right. But they are not mutually exclusive, and it is government’s job, at all levels, to respect both.

    And still outraged by …

    • Trying for a state religion in Georgia
      State Rep. Judy Poag pushes bill to require Ten Commandments displays in every Georgia public school — and punish noncompliance with state funding cutoffs.
    • School’s art lesson doesn’t make grade
      For crime of displaying disturbing art, Sarah Boman is suspended and told she needs mental exam.
    • Breaking down his door shattered his First Amendment rights
      Town gadflies can be exasperating, maybe libelous — but that doesn’t mean they should be hauled off their live cable-TV shows and arrested, as happened in Winchester, Tenn.
    • Turning libel law upside down
      New Jersey appeals court says newspaper must prove that it shouldn’t have to face lawsuit.
    • School reads safety threat in student’s stanzas
      James LaVine tried to understand school violence by exploring it in a poem, but his school saw his effort as a security risk.
    • Misjudgment cuts off public disclosure, imperils open access
      Security was the reason Judge William J. Zloch gave this week when he cut off public access to the financial disclosure records of federal judges nationwide. But the real security threat here is to press freedom, judicial accountability and open government.
    • Muscling in on student press freedom
      For 30 years Freeport (N.Y.) High School’s newspaper, Flashings, published school news freely, without meddling by school officials.
    • They turned kid’s scary story into a crime scene
      In adult minds, 13-year-old Christopher Beamon deserved six days in jail for what he wrote in his class assignment.