Rules Are for Schmucks: A Pastor Preached Too Loudly, and Neighbors Complained. Were His Rights Violated?

Photo by yanc / 123RF

Pastor Johnnie Clark was released from jail last Sunday morning, after serving nine days of his original fourteen-day sentence. His offence? Preaching in his own Christian church.

This didn’t happen in Iran, or in China. It happened in Columbia, South Carolina.

The key fact that makes the story intelligible is how loudly he was preaching. According to his neighbors, his weekly services were earsplittingly, deafeningly loud. More than fifty times in the past two years, police were called in by desperate neighbors whose houses were vibrating from all the racket. Pastor Clark was fined repeatedly for violations of the city’s noise ordinance. Some of the fines he paid, but some he did not. In June, a court issued an injunction that attempted to strike a balance: Pastor Clark could be as loud as modern technology would allow from 8:00 a.m.  to 8:00 p.m., but at night-time and early morning, his neighbors needed some rest from amplifying devices like microphones and drums.

This, of course, was not good enough for Pastor Clark, who blithely ignoring the injunction. When he was sentenced to jail for contempt of court, his wife exclaimed, “I can’t believe it, jail time for serving God, what’s next!”

This is not the only example of God experts asserting that what they have to say is so important that their neighbors need to hear every word, whether they choose to or not. In Brooklyn three summers ago, a tent revival drew similar complaints: “Even with the windows closed, AC running, TV blasting, I feel like I’m sitting in the middle of the revival,” said one resident. The minister replied, somewhat unhelpfully, “We have tried to keep our levels down, but still enough so the community can hear us.” The whole point is that the community not be able to hear them, unless they choose to attend.

In Liberia, there are fewer legal niceties, at least when one of victims happens to be the Minister of Public Works. Last month Dr. Antoinette Weeks simply strode into the church during a service, seized the microphone, and smashed it on the floor, adding something to the effect that the PA system mounted outside the building had better be taken down, or else. Two days later, a truckload of police dealt with the outdoor sound issue in peremptory fashion.

The interesting thing about Pastor Clark’s case is that his lawyer, if he had one, should be a candidate for the Moron of the Month award. It should have been the easiest thing in the world to get special privileges for the church to violate the noise ordinances at will under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

In fact, “RFRA madness” has already begun. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) charged with defending the child labor laws, came to suspect that children associated with the Warren Jeffs Mormon sect were being removed from school to work in fields harvesting pecans, without pay, for the enrichment of the local God experts. DOL investigators began to question Vergel Steed, who appeared to be in charge of the operation. They asked him whether or not he was a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the outfit alleged to own the pecan crop.

A simple enough question. But Steed refused to answer, claiming that his religion forbade him from answering questions like that. (How I wish I belonged to a religion that forbade me from paying taxes!)

Steed claimed a First Amendment “free exercise” right to refuse to answer the question. A federal magistrate ruled that there was no such right under the Constitution, and he would have to answer or be held in contempt.

Steed then appealed to the District Court judge. Even though Steed had never made a RFRA claim before the magistrate, Judge David Sam on his own brought RFRA into the case, and held that no, Steed could refuse to answer any question he chose, just by claiming that answering it would be against his religion. To rub salt on the wound, Judge Sam added that “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.” Forcing Steed to answer the question was not the “least restrictive means” for DOL investigators to get the information they wanted, he reasoned; they could perhaps get it some other way.

How do you think Judge Sam would have ruled on jailing Pastor Clark? Wouldn’t he have said that there are other less restrictive ways of ensuring quiet, like having the taxpayers soundproof the church, or pay to relocate the neighbors further away? Or that noise ordinances apply only to the 99% of noise that is not religious?

Cole Porter wrote a popular song back in 1936 called “Anything Goes.” If he were alive today, perhaps he would be a good candidate for appointment to a federal judgeship.