NEW ORLEANS (Christian Examiner) – Executive Pastor Matthew Brichetto was fingerprinted by Jefferson Parish officials in front of his congregation for preaching at a normal level without amplification.
"I preached without a microphone but we still received a second criminal summons," Brichetto told Charisma News. "They [parish officials] literally issued the summons in front of the congregation. Thankfully they allowed me to continue to preach."
Vintage Church, a New Orleans-area Baptist church, has filed a lawsuit against the local parish for threatening its pastor with arrest because of community noise complaints against church services, which have been held in a tent in the parking lot during months of ongoing construction. Vintage Church obtained a permit to hold the services temporarily in the air-conditioned, heated tent.
"I personally believe that what we're facing up against is more a spiritual than a physical battle," said Pastor Rob Wilton in a Nov. 14 video shared on Vintage Church's Twitter account. He announced a time change for the service, said services would be held with no sound amplification, and asked for church members to pray and rally.
After only its second service, the church's neighbors began to call the city with noise complaints against the church. Even though Brichetto agreed not to use amplification for his voice and a single acoustic guitar and drum set for worship, the complaints escalated.
"What were they supposed to do—whisper the morning sermon?" wondered FOX News Todd Starnes.
NO MUSIC, NO WORSHIP
According to the Jefferson Parish municipal codes regarding noise, noises in residential areas and public spaces may not exceed 60 decibels between 7 a.m. and 9:59 p.m.—except in the case of a permit, which Vintage Church requested and was granted. Sixty decibels is about as loud as an ordinary conversation.
The pastor and church members were allegedly threatened with physical arrest for using any music in their services. "Without music," the lawsuit says, "a central component of Plaintiffs' worship and praise is eliminated."
The parish's harassment of Vintage Church ensured that it has not been able to play Advent videos on the four Sundays prior to Christmas. Furthermore, church members have felt threatened and intimidated by the weekly presence of police outside their church, the petition asserts.
James Butterfield of Liberty Institute views Vintage Church's harassment as an indication of rising hostility toward religion. "We are seeing more and more of this sort of hostility toward churches in the United States," Butterfield told Charisma News, saying this type of treatment of a church would have been "unthinkable" a decade ago.
Police visited the church weekly to measure the noise levels before finally issuing a citation for noise above ordinance code. Officials even forbade the church from setting up for a 9 a.m. service before 8:50 a.m., citing a "common sense" rather than a written rule, according to the church's complaint recently filed with the district court.
"The government's demand that the services cannot exceed the noise level of a conversation is ridiculous," said Justin Butterfield at Liberty Institute.
Parish Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng said several people had problems with the noise, although Vintage Church alleges the complaints originate primarily from one neighbor.
"It's not about the worship," Lee-Sheng said to the Times-Picayune. "It's about being a good neighbor."
From Aug. 9 through Nov. 15, the noise complaints caused weekly visits from JPSO officers including the sheriff, which culminated in the on-site investigation of the church, the issuance of the second citation, and the fingerprinting of the pastor.
"Plaintiffs cannot minister to the congregation without music and preaching," the church's petition says. "The demands of the JPSO [Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office] effectively stop Plaintiffs from being able to have church services."
"I'm certain that Sheriff Normand has much more important things to do on a Sunday morning than bully and harass a small evangelical church," Starnes said.
Public officials have threatened not to renew the church's permit to meet in the tent, have attempted to change the meeting times of the church, have demanded that the church tent be reduced in size by half, and have demanded to inspect the church equipment to ensure Brichetto was not using amplification—he wasn't—according to the legal pleadings.
Neighbors claim the noise is as loud as "a rock concert" and noise vibrations can be felt in their houses, Lee-Sheng said.
"Power tools and demolition noises are permissible but a relatively quiet church service is prohibited," Butterfield said. "These demands are preventing Vintage Church from holding their worship services and from having their planned Christmas program during Advent. Furthermore, these demands violate the Louisiana Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.
"This is illegal and must stop," he added.