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Sixth Circuit: Michigan Church Can Sue Over Police Threats Surrounding Church’s Loud Music

Last week, the Sixth Circuit reversed a decision from the Eastern District of Michigan which held that a church lacked standing to challenge police investigations into complaints about noise violations from the church during services, concerts and rehearsals. In Faith Baptist Church v. Waterford Township, Faith Baptist held youth religious services at which a band played contemporary Christian rock music.

The matter began when Township residents complained to the local police department that the Church’s music was too loud. The Township’s prosecuting attorney spoke with the Church’s pastor, and told him the Church should not be playing rock music and that he was going to issue tickets to the Church until it stopped playing the music. Police officials also threatened to charge Church members for disturbing the peace. Despite the Township’s repeated warnings and threats that it would bring charges against Church members for violating the noise ordinance, no members were ultimately charged.

The Church thereafter filed suit against the Township, asserting various claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that the Township violated the Church’s constitutional rights to free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of association under the First Amendment, and to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Township argued that since no Church members were charged with disturbing the peace, the Church lacked standing to raise these claims. The district court agreed with the Township and dismissed all of the Church’s First Amendment claims, finding the Church lacked standing to raise the claims because it had not articulated a concrete or particularized injury.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of the Church’s First Amendment claims. The Court found that the Church had standing to raise the claims because it demonstrated that it had a reasonable fear that its speech, free exercise of religion, and freedom of association would be chilled by the Township’s conduct. Namely, the fact that the Township made a credible threat that it would enforce its noise ordinance, even though it did not ultimately do so, was sufficient to create a concrete and particularized injury to the Church.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, plc have extensive experience representing religious institutions and individuals whose First Amendment rights have been violated by local governments. If you feel that your constitutional rights or the constitutional rights of your religious institution have been violated, please contact us to further discuss your matter.

If you would like to read the Sixth Circuit’s full opinion, it is available at https://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/13a0363n-06.pdf.

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