PUBLISHED: Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Church sues over noise raids
By CAROL HOPKINS
Of The Oakland Press
Faith Baptist Church officials claim Waterford Township violated their free exercise of religion rights while responding to noise complaints.
The Oakland Press/JOSE JUAREZ
When it comes to music played during church worship services, what is too loud? The question has triggered lawsuits in Waterford Township.
In February, Timothy Carlson, a homeowner living across from Faith Baptist Church on Airport Road, filed a civil complaint against the church over loud band music generated last summer during praise and worship services.
On Monday, the church responded by filing its own lawsuit in federal court against Waterford officials, alleging they violated the church's and band members' rights to free exercise of religion, free speech and freedom of association.
The church - led by Pastor Jim Combs, who has a congregation of 5,000 members - also alleges the township's actions have hurt worship services.
The church's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, Eastern District, lists plaintiffs as Pastors Jim Combs and Martin Woody, Andrew Olafsson, Jeffrey Johnson and two minors, listed only by initials, K.H. and E.H.
Listed as defendants are Waterford Township, Supervisor Carl Solden, Prosecutor Walt Bedell, Police Chief Daniel McCaw and Deputy Chief Jeffrey James.
According to church attorneys, the lawsuit was prompted by the "series of police incursions into the church and threats by the township prosecutor to raid the church every time music was heard coming from it."
Police said they have been in the church, but they were just responding to residents' noise complaints.
"We started getting complaints from citizens in the area last August," said McCaw.
"(The band) was very loud, and all the doors were open."
Officers entered the church Sept. 26 and talked to musicians taking part in the service. They collected names and prepared a report, said McCaw. The young musicians were playing drums and guitars, he said. No charges were filed against the musicians, attorneys said.
Church officials argue having police come into the church is unnecessary.
"Uniformed police officers entering a church during religious services and young church members being threatened with prosecution is something that happens in communist China, not in America," said Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, the Ann Arbor-based national public interest law firm that filed the church's lawsuit.
"It is clear that Waterford Township authorities targeted Faith Baptist Church because of the type of religious music it uses in its services," said Thompson.
Not about religion
Timothy Carlson has lived across from Faith Baptist for several years, said his attorney Andrew Paluda of Paluda Smolek in Troy.
Carlson is married and "just wants to sit in his yard and have a barbecue," said Paluda.
Paluda said Carlson repeatedly requested that the church address the noise problem.
"When the situation wasn't remedied, he was forced to retain counsel to seek relief," Paluda said.
Paluda stressed the complaint has nothing to do with religion.
"They can conduct any religious service they want in the confines of their church. The problem is that the noise escaping from the church infringes on the neighbors' right to use and enjoy their own residences. They are in violation of township noise ordinances."
Paluda reported noise levels during services have been recorded above 70 decibels. A 70-decibel level is about the same noise level of busy traffic or a vacuum cleaner, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
"Because they are a church doesn't give them immunity from the law," he said.
History of lawsuits
This isn't the first time Faith Baptist officials have locked horns with Waterford Township.
In 2004, Solden filed a lawsuit against his opponent, Republican Kris Dreyer, in that year's supervisor race, stating that Jim Combs' son, Joshua Combs, and his wife listed an invalid address on Dreyer's nominating petitions. Dreyer was eventually allowed to run, but he lost to Solden.
Joshua Combs also ran for the Waterford school board that same year but was charged with falsifying a school board election affidavit. Prosecutors stated he indicated he lived in Waterford but reported he was temporarily living in Clarkston while a new home was being built in Waterford. Combs later pleaded guilty and served probation.
In the latest case, the church is asking the court to permanently prohibit police raids and for monetary damages.
"We want to stop the prosecutor and police from ever trespassing again and from conducting unlawful searches and seizures of youth who were just praising Jesus instead of hanging on street corners," said Brian Rooney, spokesman for the law center.
An evidentiary hearing in Carlson's case is set for April 2.
No court date has been set in the federal lawsuit.
Contact staff writer Carol Hopkins at (248) 745-4645 or email@example.com