Silencing The Church Bellsby Doug Mataconis
Fairfax County officials have issued a ringing non-endorsement of the bells at St. John Neumann’s in Reston, ruling that they must toll within the limits of the county’s noise ordinance or not at all.
The Board of Supervisors asked the zoning staff this year to see whether the law could be amended to accommodate the church, whose bells ring at a volume slightly higher than the 55-decibel maximum permitted in residential areas.
But James P. Zook, director of Fairfax’s Department of Planning and Zoning, recently told the board in a memo that creating an exception for church bells could be constitutionally problematic, leaving the county open to court challenge.
“Localities cannot enact different standards for noise emanating from a place of worship,” Zook said. If Fairfax did that, he said, the new rules would have to apply to “all other types of bells, chimes or carillons.” Zook noted, however, that at least two other cities, Morgantown, W.Va., and Seattle, did make exceptions for church bells.
St. John’s, a Catholic church in south Reston, installed a $50,000 electronic bell system in 2004 as part of a major expansion. When the bells began ringing, in three-minute bursts — three times on weekdays, once on Saturdays and before each of five Sunday Masses, starting at 7:30 a.m. — neighbors complained.
Of course they did.