By Bob Allen
A Southern Baptist church in Louisiana investigated numerous times for noise complaints has filed a lawsuit claiming intimidation by police and violations of religious liberty under both state and federal law.
The lawsuit filed Dec. 10 in Jefferson Parish caps a four-month dispute that began when the Vintage Church of New Orleans began renovation of a sanctuary at its campus in Metairie, La., and temporarily started meeting for Sunday morning worship in a climate-controlled tent on the church parking lot.
Neighbors started calling police with noise complaints the second week of the new arrangement, prompting the first of numerous visits by the sheriff’s office. In most instances authorities found no violations, but the church has received two citations and, according to the lawsuit, church personnel were warned of physical arrest if they use sound amplification before 10 a.m.
The lawsuit filed on the church’s behalf by the Liberty Institute claims police restrictions have “severely curtailed” the congregation’s “ability to preach the Gospel, to worship God and to grow the church” according to its own religious beliefs.
It also alleges “a campaign of intimidation” by law enforcement, putting church members in the position of “having to decide between stopping their church worship service or being continually cited and threatened with physical arrest.”
Rob Wilton, lead pastor of Vintage Church, described the last four months as “a challenging time for our church as we continue to worship Jesus” Dec. 13 on Fox News.
Wilton started Vintage Church, one of a number of new church plants in post-Katrina New Orleans, with about 25 people in 2008 in Uptown New Orleans. In 2010 the congregation added a second location, merging with Highland Baptist Church in Metairie, a congregation established in the 1950s that had dwindled to a handful of members.
According to the lawsuit, the church began meeting in the tent Aug. 2. On the second Sunday a neighbor called the sheriff’s office, but no citation was issued. On Aug. 18 a sheriff’s department captain informed church leaders they could not set up before 8:50 a.m., citing “common sense” rather than written law.
Neighbors called police Aug. 23 and Aug. 30, but officers determined no ordinances were violated. When the church sought renewal of a month-long special events permit in September, officials told leaders there could be no “live music,” meaning electric guitars and drums.
On Sept. 25 the city required the church to reduce the size of its tent to meet parking requirements. After that, Vintage Church began having two services — at 9 and 11 a.m. — so more people could attend.
After several other visits, officials told church leaders they could not use any amplification, even a pastor’s microphone, earlier than 10 a.m.
The lawsuit claims the noise restrictions “substantially burden” the church’s religious exercise, violating both state and national laws protecting religious freedom. Even if the government has a “compelling” interest in protecting neighbors from unwanted noise, the suit claims, the parish must do so by the “least restrictive means.”
Other loud noises like construction, lawnmowers and power tools may begin at 8 a.m. on Sunday, the lawsuit contends, and the 60-decibel limit in the sound ordinance, equivalent to a dishwasher or clothes dryer, would not even likely be noticed by neighbors or passersby.
A hearing is scheduled Dec. 15.