By Mike Johnson
These days, the assault on religious liberty never takes a holiday—even at Christmastime. For this reason, every conscientious citizen, and all of us who work to defend our most fundamental freedoms, can’t take a break. In some places, like Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, people of faith will get steamrolled by local officials unless we take a stand.
On December 10, my good friends and colleagues at Liberty Institute filed a federal lawsuit against Jefferson Parish on behalf of Vintage Church, after parish officials entered the church, fingerprinted the pastor, and issued a criminal summons against him for the horrific crime of being “too loud.” Apparently, the noise level of 60 decibels—the equivalent of a running dishwasher or a conversation in a restaurant—is just too much to tolerate from a worship service. While parish ordinances single out churches for strict sound limitations, they impose no such restriction on much louder categories of noise like power tools, lawn mowers, and construction activities.
This is not the first time Jefferson Parish has wound up in federal court for trampling upon the First Amendment rights of Christians. Back in 2004, I represented a number of other churches in a similar case when the pastors were bullied and intimidated by parish officials who tried to censor and silence an annual pro-life memorial service. Citing a vague local ordinance regulating “fairs and circuses,” the parish tried to stop event organizers from using low volume amplification equipment and playing religious songs to the peaceable crowd that assembled on public property.
We won that previous case by eventually settling out of court, after the parish defendants were finally forced to acknowledge their blatantly unconstitutional actions and then make dramatic revisions to their ordinances regarding free speech and assembly. Before those revisions, Jefferson Parish had made it a crime to assemble or speak at any “public gatherings” within the parish without obtaining a permit 30 days in advance. They had so narrowly defined their terms that a small family could not even gather for a picnic in a public park without being subject to arrest.
Now that several years have gone by, it seems that Jefferson Parish officials need to be reminded once again that the First Amendment protects the free speech of all citizens—even those with whom they may disagree. As Liberty Institute points out, parish officials have clearly violated well-established federal and state law, including our Louisiana Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, which makes it unlawful for the government to impose a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion unless authorities use the least restrictive means to further a compelling government interest. Obviously, the government can’t issue criminal sanctions against a quiet church service while it allows much louder sounds from parades and lawn mowers and jackhammers.
As in our previous case a decade ago, every reasonable person will acknowledge that Jefferson Parish is out of line again and should immediately correct its unconstitutional actions. Let’s all hope they do it before the pastor of Vintage Church, Matthew Brichetto, is scheduled to appear before a criminal court on January 11. Not only would such a gesture settle the pending religious liberty litigation, it would be a nice little Christmas gift to the church—and to every Louisiana citizen who is concerned about the increasing hostility being shown toward people of faith.
Mike Johnson serves in the Louisiana House of Representatives, and as Chief Counsel of Freedom Guard, a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to defending religious liberty and traditional values.