A battle over noise, pitting neighbors against a young Southern Baptist congregation conducting services in a tent in the middle of a residential Metairie neighborhood, spilled into court this week, as the church accused the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office of trampling on its religious freedom by enforcing an “unconstitutional” sound ordinance.
The Vintage Church of New Orleans, in a lawsuit filed Thursday, claimed that Sheriff Newell Normand and his deputies have waged a “campaign of intimidation” in recent months that has forced members to decide between worshipping and “being continually cited and threatened with physical arrest.”
The church, which emphasizes instrumental music, relocated Sunday morning services to a large tent in its parking lot over the summer — an arrangement intended to be temporary as the church expands its permanent auditorium on Rayne Street.
Some neighbors quickly complained that musicians were warming up for the services as early as 7 a.m., in violation of a parish sound ordinance that carves out exemptions for “church bells and chimes” but not for drums and electric guitars.
“The 911 calls will show that it’s not just me” up in arms, said Lisa Caracci, who lives next to the church. “We have this really quiet little street here, and we had never had an issue with this church until the tent came.”
Caught in the middle has been Normand, whose deputies have been called to the church Sunday after Sunday to measure noise levels. The sheriff recently made a trip to the property himself and said he could feel the vibrations of drums inside his vehicle.
The church’s executive pastor, Matthew Brichetto, has been issued two summonses after authorities detected sound levels exceeding 60 decibels before 10 a.m., according to the church, whose lawsuit claims that threshold “is so low that it could prohibit numerous activities, such as a slightly elevated conversation or greeting, a backyard birthday party or even a child’s laughing or crying.”
“If they were in the middle of a cornfield, this wouldn’t be an issue and nobody would care,” Normand said in an interview. “It seems to me that (the church) should be a little bit more reasonable in their approach because the vinyl tent is not too much thicker than a Ziploc bag. It seems a little bit overt and a little bit intrusive to me.”
The dispute has drawn the attention of the Liberty Institute, a well-known Texas law firm that seeks to preserve religious freedom around the country and is backing the lawsuit.
Roy Bowes, the Gretna attorney who filed the suit in 24th Judicial District Court, said the Sheriff’s Office overstepped its bounds in preventing the church from using microphones and amplification, making it next to impossible for everyone in the tent to hear the preacher.
“They’ve attacked us,” he said, referring to the Sheriff’s Office, “and we’re in a position where we can’t exercise our religious freedom.”
Bowes insisted that the congregation’s right to religious freedom trumps the parish sound ordinance and neighbors’ complaints, and he said the church has made a number of concessions over the past few months. Nevertheless, he said, the strict watch kept by the Sheriff’s Office recently precluded the church from showing video Advent messages to members.
“The demands of the JPSO effectively stop plaintiffs from being able to have church services,” the lawsuit alleges.
The feud has become increasingly charged. Normand said some affiliates of the church have led a “character assassination of adjacent landowners who just want to be able to sleep late on a Sunday.”
While the sheriff said he has received letters and complaints about the noise from a number of residents, Bowes insisted the dispute has been driven by “one lady who doesn’t want to hear about God.” The church, he said, can “prove” the woman does not merely wish to sleep in and that she’s “up and at ’em by 9.” Bowes, without naming the woman, said he wouldn’t want to be “facing Jesus being her right now.”
“There’s a demon who is giving this lady an uncomfortableness, meaning the darkness doesn’t like the light,” Bowes said. “The bottom line is the devil, a demonic obsession if you will, has caused this lady to want to strike out at the church.”
For her part, Caracci said her constant complaints stem not from the message preached inside the tent but from the church’s failure to respect its neighbors.
“This has nothing to do with religion. It has nothing to do with their faith,” she said. “It has everything to do with the noise level and the nuisance that tent has created.”
The lawsuit also alleges that parish officials improperly required the church to obtain a special-event permit to hold services on private property. It describes the parish sound ordinance as confusing and unconstitutionally vague, adding that it “fails to provide people of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to understand what the ordinance prohibits.”
“Power tools and demolition noises are permissible, but a relatively quiet church service is prohibited,” said Justin Butterfield, an attorney with the Liberty Institute, referring to exemptions in the parish ordinance that also include construction.
Judge Cornelius Regan is expected to hold a hearing on the matter Tuesday.
Normand said his deputies will continue to enforce the sound ordinance until it’s changed or struck down as unconstitutional.
“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,” he said. “The law is the law.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.