(CNSNews.com) - A Michigan church filed a federal lawsuit after police officers, led by a local prosecutor, entered the sanctuary at least twice without a warrant, alleging the church's music was too loud. In one instance, they threatened to arrest church musicians for disorderly conduct.
Faith Baptist Church, with a congregation of about 10,000 members, is suing local officials in the Township of Waterford, Mich., in a First Amendment case a church attorney said could have national ramifications in establishing what local governments can do in regulating churches.
The suit -- alleging the township violated the church's freedom of religious expression, freedom of speech and freedom of association -- was filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Detroit after the church had been subject to what it describes as raids by the Waterford Police Department, led by township prosecutor Walter Bedell.
At least one of those raids occurred during a Sunday service, according to the suit.
The church played contemporary Christian music that included guitars, drums, and other instruments. Township officials contend they were simply trying to enforce local noise laws and that the church is being a bad neighbor.
But "praise and worship" music is a form of religious expression, said Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, a public interest Christian law firm representing the church.
"This is subterfuge to try to interfere with religious exercise that Faith Baptist Church has," Thompson told Cybercast News Service. "The prosecutor and uniformed police officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights. They were not invited. They burst into the church. Unless they had an arrest warrant or a search warrant, they had no right to go there except for worship."
Bedell said the matter has nothing to do with religious expression. He said he has received more than 10 written complaints about the noise from the church.
"The whole issue is not with the type of music - it's the music and the volume, and people who are in their own homes trying to sleep, eat, and spend time with their children," Bedell told Cybercast News Service.
"I have no problem with music. I play the guitar myself. This is about the volume of music and people who were not able to live normal lives in their own home," he added.
The matter with police began during a Wednesday night youth service in October 2007 when uniformed police officers led by Bedell entered the church's sanctuary where the church's band was practicing, according to the lawsuit.
Bedell then ordered police to take down the names and addresses of all the people on the stage so they could be charged with disorderly conduct.
The following Sunday, Waterford Township Police returned, during an evening church service, the Thomas More Law Center said.
Officers were about to forcibly remove band members and order them to surrender their driver's licenses and personal information before an assistant pastor at the church volunteered to bring the musical band members to the police station to avoid an uproar in the congregation.
Faith Senior Pastor Jim Combs told the attorneys he was approached by other uniformed police officers who apologized but also said they had to follow orders from the local officials. Combs is deferring comment on the case to the law center, a church receptionist said Tuesday.
Attorneys for the township of Waterford are still working on a response to the lawsuit. But certain facts will likely be in dispute.
According to the plaintiff, Bedell told Combs on tape that the church was playing rock music and Bedell didn't consider that appropriate church music.
Bedell denies saying that.
Further, Township Supervisor Carl Solden said that police never entered the church during a service, only when the band was having a practice session.
"A neighbor complained, and the police department responded, as they do in all cases - it's a service organization," Solden told Cybercast News Service. "I can't imagine a church that didn't want to get along with its neighbors. I would think 'love thy neighbor' would enter into this somewhere."
Solden said the township only wanted the church to tone down their music. While he admitted there was consideration about charging church members with disorderly conduct, he stressed that action was never taken and that no church member was arrested or detained.
"It's uncanny that it would go this far," Solden said. "It's unfortunate because it could have been resolved."
"For them to say this was surprising is disingenuous," said Thompson. He further noted that the township's noise ordinance of no more than 70 decibels is rarely enforced and, if it were, would essentially outlaw lawnmowers and snow blowers.
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