The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking a Michigan town to repeal a noise ordinance exemption that favors religion.
The Hamtramck City Council has exempted calls to prayer and church bells from the local noise control ordinance. As a result, city inhabitants are often roused from their slumber at ridiculous hours.
"This exemption violates the Constitution," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel says in the Feb. 23 letter, prompted by a concerned Hamtramck resident. "The noise ordinance is a reasonable restriction meant to foster a peaceful, quiet community with a well-rested population. It is a neutral and generally applicable statute. Religious announcements, calls to prayer, or church bells should not be exempt."
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government from privileging religious messages, Seidel notes. The U.S. Supreme Court has said time and again that the "First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion."
For seven months each year, the noise exemption does not allow for sunrise prayer announcements because it comes into force only after 6 a.m. (while the sun rises before 6). And, yet, the mosques are surviving. Since it is not needed much of the year, the exemption is simply an unconstitutional codification of religious privilege.
And, of course, it is unnecessary. In this day and age, with all the means of communications available, people need not be called to prayer on loudspeakers. Mosques and churches can communicate directly with their congregation in hundreds of ways that do not disturb the peace, tranquility and sleep of every other citizen.
Plus, the Hamtramck City Council exemption does not limit the volume of religious messages. By not providing a specific maximum decibel level for mosques and churches, as it does for other exemptions such as construction equipment, the city is unconstitutionally favoring religion.
FFRF has learned that the city has received many complaints about the religious messages in the last ten years. But the complaints about their extreme noise level are not finding their way to the city clerk and into City Council meetings.
FFRF is asking the Hamtramck City Council to repeal the exemption. Or at the very least, it should investigate these calls to prayer and church bells by monitoring their noise level. And any future complaints must be placed on the City Council's agenda, as the law requires.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 23,000 members across the country, including more than 600 individuals in Michigan.