A judge Tuesday night denied Vintage Church of New Orleans’ request to temporarily bar the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office from enforcing the parish’s noise ordinance against it. The Metairie church says the law effectively infringes upon its constitutional right to freely practice its religion.
Judge Adrian Adams, of 24th Judicial District Court, in Gretna ruled that the church did not prove the enforcement of the ordinance constitutes a substantial burden, rather than merely an inconvenience, under the Louisiana Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.
He also sided with the Sheriff’s Office and the parish administration’s position that the Religious Land and Institutionalized Persons Act, a 2000 federal law intended to let churches escape burdensome zoning restrictions, doesn’t apply to a “nuisance” ordinance.
Vintage, a Southern Baptist church on Rayne Street that uses live instrumental music in its Sunday services, has been operating in a tent since August while its building is renovated. Neighbors quickly began complaining to the Sheriff’s Office that the music was too loud and that warm-ups often began as early as 7 a.m., disturbing the peace.
Sheriff’s Office deputies were dispatched to the church on about 20 occasions and twice issued misdemeanor summonses to Executive Pastor Matthew Brichetto.
Brichetto and Pastor Robert Wilton testified that they have been working to keep the noise level down — scrapping amplified instruments in favor of acoustic ones and changing the kind of drums used. They also considered buying temporary walls to block the sound but decided they were too expensive, they said.
Attorneys Danny Martiny and Renee Hatch Aguilar, representing the JPSO and the parish, respectively, questioned why other arrangements were deemed impossible.
The pastors said moving the services to another location or delaying the 9 a.m. service until after 10 a.m. would not only be inconvenient for the congregation but would prevent the church from fulfilling its religious mission to preach the word of God to as many people as possible.
Under questioning from their attorney, Roy Bowes, the pastors said the repeated police presence at services and the two occasions on which Brichetto was issued summonses and fingerprinted intimidated the church and its members.
Brichetto played a recording he made of a phone conversation with JPSO Capt. Michael Kinler in which he said he was threatened.
In the conversation, Kinler said it was likely that the Sheriff’s Office would get a call the following morning from neighbors and that if deputies went out and took sound readings and found the church was over the 60-decibel limit set by the ordinance, the pastors could be served with another misdemeanor summons, which constitutes an arrest.
The recorded exchange seemed cordial, but under questioning from Bowes, Brichetto said he felt Kinler’s comments constituted a threat of arrest.
Sheriff Newell Normand later testified that he didn’t consider the call threatening and that he was proud of Kinler for explaining to the pastors the ramifications of another complaint.
Kinler said he was simply trying to be a peacemaker and that the exchange had been mischaracterized.
“The last thing I want is to take a police action,” he said. “I want everyone to be happy.”
Bowes attempted to get Normand to say he would neither arrest the pastors nor shut down their church for violating the ordinance, but Normand said he couldn’t do that, despite earlier testifying that the Sheriff’s Office’s position was that no arrests were necessary in the case.
In his ruling, Adams said he did not feel the recorded conversation constituted a threat.
He said he wouldn’t tell the church how or when to practice its religion but that it has to find a way to do it in accordance with the law unless or until it successfully challenges the sound ordinance.
Bowes said he plans to appeal the decision.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.