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Church tent noise level now a religious liberty test

METAIRIE, La. (BP) — Vintage Church, a Louisiana Baptist congregation, has filed a lawsuit against the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and Jefferson Parish in a dispute over sound levels during Sunday worship services in a tent serving as the congregation’s temporary meeting area.

The tent, erected in August, is intended to be a short-term arrangement while the church expands attendance capacity in its permanent building — a project estimated for completion in nine or 10 months.

The petition filed jointly by local attorney Roy Bowes and the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm which focuses on religious liberty issues, accuses Sheriff Newell Normand and his officers of intimidation tactics in attempting to essentially shut down Vintage Church’s weekly worship services because of noise complaints by a single individual. The suit also describes the noise level ordinances as flawed.

On the other side, at least one neighbor in the community claims the church is not being considerate by allowing musicians to warm up as early as 7 a.m. on Sundays, and she claims she is not alone in opposing the noise levels coming from the tent.

“The 911 calls will show that it’s not just me,” said Lisa Caracci, who lives next door, according to a Dec. 11 report in the New Orleans Advocate. “We have this really quiet little street here, and we had never had an issue with this church until the tent came.”

Vintage Church, a growing church plant started in 2008, merged with the former Highland Baptist Church, original owners of the property, in 2010.

Jefferson Parish Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, whose district includes the Vintage Church campus, said in a NOLA.com/Times-Picayune report that several people had complained about the noise.

“It’s not about the worship,” Lee-Sheng said. “It’s about being a good neighbor.”

But pastor Rob Wilton said the church has been trying to do just that — hiring technicians to ensure sound levels would not exceed 60 decibels, the limit being imposed on the church, and also, for instance, by moving to acoustic guitars with no amplification.

Still, the phone complaints continued and the constant visits from the sheriff’s office have had a negative effect on the congregation, Wilton said.

“It’s a difficult thing in church work just to get a congregation to be faithful week to week on a normal regular Sunday with normal circumstances,” Wilton told the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

“If you can imagine, we are meeting for worship in a tent, on a property where construction is happening, and top that off with every single week police coming out to visit, engaging my church staff and even on certain weekends giving us criminal summons, that’s just not a friendly thing for a congregation to see. And that has certainly not helped us in keeping people around.”

Wilton said even faithful volunteers have informed him it’s very difficult to attend “out of fears.”

The pastor also said he was vexed by the complaints, given the welcome the church has received from the community overall.

“For the most part, the majority of the neighborhood around us loves Vintage Church,” Wilton said. “They love us being here.” He said neighbors are excited about the growth of the church and the expansion of the facilities.

The protracted conflict began Aug. 9, the second Sunday when services were held in the tent. Since then:

— The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office sent officers to the church to investigate a complaint but did not issue a citation, according to the church’s lawsuit. Complaints continued through the month, but there were no legal ramifications, only a warning to keep sound levels below 60 decibels before 8:50 a.m.

— The church had been operating in the tent during August under a special events permit, which was renewed in September, but with the caveat of no drums or electric guitars. So the church switched to acoustic guitars for services, according to the legal filing.

— Later in the month, Jefferson Parish required Vintage Church to reduce its tent footprint because of parking requirements, and the congregation complied.

— During the first week in October, a parish official warned the church to cease playing music or risk being shut down.

— Sheriff’s deputies continued to show up during services in October and November, and twice issued a summons to Executive Pastor Matthew Brichetto and actually fingerprinted him both times in the greeting area.

Liberty Institute argues that the government’s actions have placed a substantial burden on the church’s exercise of religion without a compelling government interest, and it calls the criminal sanctions against the church “unwarranted hostility.” The legal group also claims the sheriff’s office and parish violated Louisiana’s Preservation of Religious Freedom Act and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

“We want Vintage Church to be treated fairly,” Justin Butterfield, senior counsel for Liberty Institute, told the Baptist Message. “The noise ordinance that the parish is enforcing against them permits much louder volumes for jackhammers, construction noise and lawnmowers.”

Butterfield said he only wants the local government to hold Vintage Church to the same standards it allows for these other activities on Sunday mornings.

Wilton said Vintage Church’s legal cause is not just for the congregation.

“I really do pray that this would be a time that maybe the Lord would use to protect our churches moving forward to be able to carry on the mission God has called them to here in New Orleans,” the pastor said. “We are not one church here. We are part of a church that is connected among a bunch of different churches, churches of different denominations as well as our Baptist churches here in New Orleans.

“We have a strong brotherhood and we stand with each other,” Wilton said. “If our time of challenge can be a time that helps us move forward together in accomplishing the mission God has called us all together to do, then we’ll thank Him for that.”

Caracci, in the New Orleans Advocate report, said her complaints are not an issue of religious liberty, but simply respect for neighbors.

“This has nothing to do with religion. It has nothing to do with their faith,” Caracci said. “It has everything to do with the noise level and the nuisance that tent has created.”

In the same article, Sheriff Normand said his deputies will continue enforcing the sound ordinance until it is struck down or changed.

“I don’t get to pick and choose what laws I want to enforce based upon my own feeling of something, and basically, at some point, that’s what [the church] asked me to do,” Normand said. “The law is the law.”

For his part, Wilton is hoping to move past the legal troubles to get back on focus.

“Our church’s mission is to live the Gospel, serve the city and be the church,” the pastor said. “This time has been a very challenging time for us in trying to accomplish this mission in our community.

“We are praying through this lawsuit that we are pursuing, through bringing a resolution to this, that not only our church but all the churches in Jefferson Parish would be protected by law to carry out the mission that God has called them to,” Wilton said.

“We are praying this would happen as fast as possible so we can go back into a Christmas season that should be filled with much more joy and excitement.”