A New Orleans pastor who spent seven years rebuilding the city after Hurricane Katrina says he is now being bullied by local officials and intimidated by cops in a classic case of discrimination disguised as a noise dispute.
His church has filed suit against Jefferson Parish saying officials are using a noise ordinance to discriminate against the church.
Pastor Rob Hargrove tells The Daily Caller News Foundation he developed a heart for the city of New Orleans after working so long to rebuild the flooded city. He started a bible study in his living room in 2008 that has grown to a church of about 500 people with multiple services every Sunday.
The church was growing quickly so they began construction on an expanded sanctuary. They began having their Sunday services on the same property but outside under a large tent. Soon, neighbors began to complain that the noise, which usually began around 8:30 a.m., was too much. They called police who said the church was violating the city ordinance of 60 decibels for church services.
So the church stripped its band down to a few string instruments, acoustic guitar, and a small jimbay drum that is played by patting the top. They hired sound technicians to help and thought everything would be fine.
But one Sunday Jefferson Parish Sheriff officers came and fingerprinted the executive pastor Matthew Brichetto in front of the congregation, and gave him a criminal summons. This is essentially an arrest without being handcuffed and taken in to the jail. He has received two of these summons so far.
The church says it had to deal with several police vehicles on the property and officers intimidating attendees. The pastor says it’s ridiculous that fewer than 200 people per service with an acoustic guitar and a few string instruments warrants several police cars and publicly finger printing a pastor.
“They have been very visual, unfortunately very unfriendly and intimidating to our staff and our church,” Hargrove tells TheDCNF. “I think its pretty unreasonable for you to have five, six police cars being called in to this type of a scene. Just by mere amount of cars, that’s the intimidation factor.”
Justin Butterfield, senior counsel for Liberty Institute, the group representing Vintage Church, tells TheDCNF the 60 decibel ordinance is illegal because it discriminates against churches. The city has different volume caps depending on what activity is being conducted. While the church is held to a 60 decibel limit, construction is allowed to be louder. Butterfield says this discrepancy violates federal and state law which require churches not be held to stricter standards than other organizations. Butterfield adds the dispute could lead to a fine or even physical arrest for Brichetto.
“Right now they are still living in fear of what the parish could do,” Butterfield tell TheDCNF. “They are wanting to be treated as fairly as the lawnmower and the power tools are in this town.”
A similar incident occurred in the Arizona town of Gilbert and was resolved earlier this year. That city had different ordinances for political, business and church signs. The regulations for churches were stricter than business or political signs, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the city’s inconsistent regulations were unconstitutional.
“We’ve complied with everything that they’ve asked and still week after week we’ve received threats from the police,” Hargrove tells TheDCNF. “We live in a city where we have festivals and parades every weekend,” Hargrove told TheDCNF. “Mardis Gras is not just a one day event. It is a three week event. I very rarely hear any reports about that noise being called into the cops about this.”
The church has a hearing Tuesday.
“It’s not about the worship,” Parish Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, whose district includes Vintage Church, tells The Times-Picayune. “It’s about being a good neighbor.”
A Sheriff’s office spokesman, Colonel John N. Fortunato, tells TheDCNF “the sheriff will not be commenting on this matter at this time.”
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