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Does the First Amendment Protect Bell Ringing to Make a Joyful Noise?

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | September 10, 2009

Posted by Cliff Tuttle (c) 2009

SUMMARY: Does the First Amendment protect a church from government interference with its decisions of when, how long and how loud to ring the Church bells? A case in Federal Court may eventually provide the answer.

Is ringing the church bells protected by the First Amendment? The Wall Street Journal Law Blog reports a fascinating case arising in Phoenix Arizona that addresses the question. Read the WSJ Law Blog story for the details. Here’s the gist of it:

The Church rang its bells hourly during the day, including on week days. Some of the neighbors found this annoying and dragged the bishop of the congregation into court, leading to a criminal conviction and a suspended sentence. The court limited bell ringing to Sunday and certain religious holidays, restricting the loudness and duration of the sound.

But some people don’t look upon religion in general and bell-ringing to proclaim it in particular as a Sunday only activity. A group of neighboring churches have banded together and brought a complaint in Federal Court alleging that state law, as applied in this case, constitutes a violation of the First Amendment.

As pointed out in the WSJ Law Blog, ringing church bells is part of the exercise of religion. It is “what churches do.”

But ringing a church bell is more than a call to worship. Church bells sometimes chime hymns. They are rung to announce both joyful and sad events: the end of war, a funeral. And sometimes they simply mark the hour — a useful bit of information.

Since every bell has a unique sound, familiar to those living in the district, they act as a advertisement for the church where the bell is located. Just as we might forget that a Pizza chain is located nearby if the TV commercial at the beginning of a football game didn’t deliver a timely reminder, we could also fail to remember our weekly obligation to visit a house of worship while snug in bed on Sunday morning — that is, if the bell did not remind us.

The First Amendment, in addition to protecting the free exercise of religion, has also been invoked to protect the free exercise of the right to communicate ideas. Some forms of communication recognized by the courts as Constitutionally protected have been quite unique. And so too is communication of a message by ringing a bell. Yet, the right to express a religious message by ringing bells must have some limit. That’s what courts are for.

If you have an opinion on this subject, just chime in. Back Talk is always Welcome.



CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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