Freedom of religion vs. the sanctity of one’s home

SC church’s joyful noise too much, neighbors say

dhinshaw@thestate.comMarch 16, 2013 

— When Tim Ellis bought a brand-new house in downtown Columbia, he thought having a church next door was “a bonus,” because his neighbors wouldn’t be around much.

But it turns out Ellis and the Pentecostal worshipers at Rehoboth United Assemblies are too close for comfort.

Just 10.5 feet separate the church and the Ellis home on Laurel Street.

Singing and shouting, dancing and drumming – hallmarks of Pentecostal worship – vibrate the walls of the home Ellis shares with Sheri Callahan and her 7-year-old son. The unpredictable worship schedule can make it impossible to have friends over, listen to the TV or even go to bed until church lets out.

But the church was there first, 25 years before new homes were built nearby, and Apostle Johnnie Clark said he and his parishioners shouldn’t have to change the way they worship.

The issue has pitted the sanctity of one’s home against the fundamental right to religious freedom, leaving the city – which approved the land-use plan for new houses surrounding the church – grappling for a solution. At the very least, Mayor Steve Benjamin said last week, he’d like the two sides to sit down with a professional mediator.

So far, though, the city is relying on a noise ordinance branding the church services “a public nuisance.” Clark says that stifles his church’s form of worship.

Columbia police have issued 16 tickets since October over the use of microphones and amplifiers.

“How can you declare a church a public nuisance?” Clark asked.

The homeowners say they’re Christian, too, and just want peace and quiet.

“We literally feel we’re being pushed out of the house,” Callahan said.

Escalating tensions

Ellis and Callahan were home more often last summer, and that’s when they were first bothered by noise from the church.

Their two-story home is situated on a hill along Laurel Street, not far from the Governor’s Mansion. The city assembled a block of land for the new development, the Battery at Arsenal Hill, picked the developer and approved the plan.

The homes are built close together, creating small, easy-to-maintain yards, with parking along hidden cul-de-sacs.

“We used to love it here,” said Callahan, an HR consultant seated on a leather couch in her living room.

First, the couple tried to meet with Clark; they wanted to invite him over to hear the volume for himself. “We thought, ‘Maybe he doesn’t realize how bad it is,’” Callahan said.

He refused.

Then, they just tried to find places to travel on weekends.

By October, they’d had enough.

They called the police – their only legal recourse. Officers must come inside the house to verify an unreasonable level of noise before writing a ticket.

Since that first call, Ellis and Callahan have made 20 more at the instruction of the police. At least 16 calls resulted in tickets, police spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said.

The calls have come in every day of the week but Tuesday, and at all hours. The earliest report was written at 8 in the morning, the latest at 9:15 at night.

Sometimes the church doesn’t use amplifiers or microphones, Ellis said, and there are no problems.

“It’s a very small church,” said Ellis, who works in the homebuilding industry. “There are times there are literally eight people in there, and they’ll have microphones, screaming at the top of their lungs.”

In November, Callahan invited her parents over to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade over coffee. The church was holding a Thanksgiving service, and the family couldn’t hear the TV. They left for an early brunch.

Callahan said her ex-husband isn’t allowing her son to stay at the house much anymore because tensions with the church are escalating.

The boy is late to bed on school nights when it’s just too loud next door.

Serving the Lord

Clark said his wife, Pastor Harriett Clark, started Rehoboth United Assemblies when she was a college student at S.C. State University in Orangeburg.

It began as a sewing circle, he said, with members who discussed the Bible.

About 30 years ago, the Pentecostal church purchased what had been a Baptist church on Laurel Street. Clark has led the congregation since 1996.

The sign out front quotes the book of Joshua: “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.”

Clark said he has tried to accommodate his neighbors by moving the drum set to the far side of the church and by asking his daughter, who runs the sound system, to tone it down.

The third time the police came to his church, Clark said, he was preparing to give the benediction when something happened he would not have expected.

“This officer walks down the aisle and he said, ‘Shut this service down, and shut it down now,’” Clark recalled. “And I said, ‘Get your behind out of my pulpit.’ ... I told him, ‘If you have something to say, wait until after this service.’”

Clark said people froze in the pews. “It was like, ‘We can’t believe this.’”

Since that time, Clark said, he has insisted that officers with their ticket books remain in the vestibule. There, his wife or an adjutant can see the officer through the glass and go to the back of the church to accept a ticket without interrupting the service.

“I feel like our rights are really in jeopardy,” he said.

Clark said his services haven’t changed and he considers a microphone essential. “When you preach like we preach, you need a microphone.”

He has no explanation for why his services suddenly would have begun to disturb his neighbors.

“Why should I change something we’ve been doing from Day 1?” he asked. “Nobody in this city has been mandated to change their form of worship. Nobody in this city has been told not to use their P.A. system.”

Maybe the city needs to erect a soundproof barrier between the church and the house, he said.

“I’m not trying to be rude or trying to be difficult. I’m tired and frustrated,” Clark said. “I’m really sick of her next door.”

Tickets over the top?

If there’s one thing on which everyone agrees, it’s that the city should not have allowed Inspired Communities to build so close to the church five years ago.

Company president David Tuttle didn’t anticipate a problem. “As a developer, that would be something you’d want because, generally, they’re only used once a week,” he said.

“It was our idea to have smaller lots where you have porches, sidewalks, and you try to associate with your neighbors, rather than be in suburbia.”

City approval of the site plan came before Benjamin was mayor.

And it was an award-winning approach. The Battery at Arsenal Hill won the community of the year award by the Home Builders Association of Greater Columbia in 2007-08, Tuttle said.

Still, Clark wrote a letter questioning city officials in March 2008 about parking and landscaping plans for Tuttle’s new neighborhood. He expressed the fear that changes could “result in the death of our congregation.”

Arsenal Hill neighborhood president Bob Wynn said he just heard about the dispute from his barber a couple of weeks ago. He called the pastor to find out more.

“I’m dismayed it would be such a problem,” Wynn said. “I worry that citations to a church for noise that comes from expressing their religious service once a week or twice a week is a little over the top.”

For Cliff Spann, another Arsenal Hill resident, it’s pretty simple: "That’s what happens when you live in a dense area. You just have to be cognizant and you have to be considerate of everyone around you."

The series of tickets, police incident reports and, recently, a court date before a municipal judge in which Clark said he was fined $800 have done nothing to improve the situation.

If anything, problems have intensified.

Last Sunday, Ellis and Callahan said, a man in a choir robe threw open a window and climbed out of the church, hollering toward their house and yelling “Hallelujah, take down our enemies.”

Police Chief Randy Scott said issuing tickets is not the answer.

The section of the law the officers are using says: “Creating public nuisance. It shall be unlawful for any person to operate, or cause or permit to be operated, any instrument or sound-producing or sound-amplifying device so loudly as to unreasonably disturb persons in the vicinity thereof or in such a manner as renders the instrument or device a public nuisance.”

Said Scott: “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see this is above and beyond what would disturb a homeowner. ... You don’t hear it. You feel it. This is a very serious issue.”

He acknowledged that an officer entered the church sanctuary on one occasion, but he and Benjamin said that will not happen again.

“There’s no how-to manual on writing a noise ordinance (ticket) to a church,” Scott said. “This is probably the last thing as police chief I would expect to deal with.”

‘No one’s wrong’

The city has been hoping to find a solution.

Benjamin said he presented Apostle Clark and his lawyer with about a dozen potential sites last month, thinking the city might be able to assist the church in relocating.

Clark is noncommital. The church is bought and paid for, he said. He has no interest in going into debt.

“If we give in and move, what will happen to other people and other churches when people decide, ‘We don’t want to hear their services?’” he added.

The mayor and police chief are hopeful the church and its neighbors will accept a city offer to mediate the dispute outside of court. If they will participate, Benjamin said, Just Mediation has agreed to take the case.

He sympathizes with both sides.

The church has a right to praise God as it has for 30 years while every property owner deserves the right to a peaceful enjoyment of his or her home, Benjamin said.

“How do you fix a situation when no one’s wrong?”

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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