As of Monday, January 12, 2015
Is there a point when a church's constitutional right to make a joyful noise to the Lord becomes annoying and a nuisance to neighbors? That issue nearly made it to Sunnyside Municipal Court last week, before officials there dismissed a noise citation against a Hispanic church here. It's a debate that will likely continue in Sunnyside, once known as the "Holy City" for its original founding as a Christian cooperative. The noise issue involving the El Gran Rey Jesus congregation, which meets in the Sunnyside United Methodist building at 906 E. Edison Ave., came to a head on Sunday, April 28. That's when two Sunnyside police officers arrived just prior to a worship service and issued a citation for unnecessary noise, which carried a $1,000 fine. The officers were called to the church steps by Dr. Jim Stevens, who operates a dental office next to the Methodist church building. It was the latest of several calls by Stevens to police and to Methodist church officials complaining about noise from the Hispanic church's worship services. "We've received numerous noise complaints in regards to this case this year," said Sgt. Joey Glossen of the Sunnyside Police Department. He confirmed all complaints were filed by Stevens. The April 28 police visit to the church resulted in the citation for allegedly violating the city's noise ordinance. The fine came after an exchange of written messages between Stevens and Deputy Police Chief Phil Schenck. In a copy of the exchange obtained by the Daily Sun News, Stevens said of the church's repeated noise issue, "This is the type of attitude that is destroying Sunnyside. These same people are allowed to run rampant in the schools and other venues. How many of this religious group are on welfare? How many are in the USA illegally? How many are gang affiliates?" For his part, Schenck told Stevens in the exchange, "I talked to the prosecutor about this last week. If this continues we will cite the responsible." In comments to the Daily Sun News yesterday morning (Wednesday), Schenck confirmed the decision to cite. He said the decision to issue the church a citation was based solely on the fact his department had received numerous noise complaints regarding the Hispanic church. "We had been receiving a complaint every week for the previous four weeks before the citation was issued," said Schenck. "All of the complaints were from Dr. Stevens." At 1:34 p.m. on Sunday, April 28, Sunnyside police levied a citation against United Methodist Church Pastor Pat Beeman as the party responsible for the building. Schenck said he was unaware the April 28 noise complaint had come in to the police department before Sunday church services had started. City officials attempt to intervene In the days leading up to the fine, Sunnyside United Methodist Church officials met with Stevens about his concerns, which included the Hispanic congregation's use of a parking lot that is property of the Methodist church. Just three days before the fine was levied, Sunnyside's city council even got involved. That happened on April 25, when, according to Sunnyside United Methodist Church records, Councilman Jason Raines attempted to intervene, expressing concern to the church that the dispute was bad for the church, the city and the dentist. Raines confirmed he met with the church. "I had a conversation with a couple of people there," he said. The plan communicated to Schenck, Stevens and Raines was that on May 5 the Hispanic congregation would move its worship service elsewhere in the church building - to Memorial Hall. In the meantime, the Hispanic congregation would make an attempt to keep its music volume at a lower level. The church couldn't make the move earlier because Memorial Hall was already in use by the Habitat for Humanity group. Schenck said he met with Pastor Beeman about a week before the citation was issued. "I was hoping to come to some sort of solution agreeable to the complaining party and the church," he said. Unfortunately, Schenck observed, the April 28 citation was issued before the congregation could put its plan into action. Beeman said in her discussions with Schenck prior to being issued the citation, he appeared sympathetic about the problem at hand. The church pastor said Schenck even commented that his church congregation was fortunate not to have a neighbor sensitive to noise, as worship services at his church can become a bit noisy. Beeman chose to contest the citation and, after receiving notice of her June 13 court date, hired the Sunnyside law firm Halvorsen Northwest. Between the April 28 citation and last week's court date, the Methodist church conducted a survey of the neighborhood to see if any others were bothered by El Gran Rey Jesus' worship services. Survey results indicated three neighbors were not bothered by the worship. Two other survey respondents happen to live next to each other, with one saying they were only bothered by the drum beats and the other saying they could hear no music at all. Two days prior to the assigned court date, Sunnyside's fill-in prosecuting attorney, Bill Schuler, requested municipal court judge Wes Raber dismiss the noise complaint. Raber complied. "...Are we going to win?" Steve Winfree of Halvorsen Northwest says the neighborhood survey likely played a big part in dismissing the charge. "They (prosecutors) had to ask themselves, we're taking city resources for this case and are we going to win? What are we going to accomplish? That's what it came down to," said Winfree, whose law partner, Ray Alexander, served as defense counsel for Beeman. Winfree added, "If the people surrounding the church haven't been offended other than Dr. Stevens, they had to question whether there was enough evidence to convict. It's not as if there is radar like there is for speeding." According to city court administrator Debbie Mendoza, noise infractions normally do not go to court. She said the penalty for the noise infraction can be as much as $1,000. However, it was not so much the dollar amount of the fine which led Beeman to contest the citation. She said she strongly believes in First Amendment rights, especially that churches be allowed to worship as they see fit. She also expressed concern that other churches could become targets. "I would have preferred to go to court and defend the right to worship," she said. "We need harmony" At the same time, Beeman said she is happy to see harmony restored between El Gran Rey Jesus and Stevens. Those sentiments were echoed by Pastor Katie Haney of Sunnyside Presbyterian Church. "As pastors we are all concerned about freedom of our churches to worship as the Holy Spirit compels us," says Haney, president of the Sunnyside Ministerial Association. "But we also believe in reconciliation, the courts are our last resort." Stevens, too, says harmony is the focus now. "That's all been resolved," he said of Sunnyside United Methodist Church. "The church has been our neighbor for over 40 years and we look out for each other. They have some wonderful people, pillars in the community." As an example of that neighborly spirit, Stevens recalled a time when he chased off tree pruners that had their buzz saws roaring across the street just before the Methodist church was about to begin a worship service. Stevens says the noise issue has been addressed with the El Gran Rey Jesus congregation now meeting in another room at the Methodist church "The whole deal was resolved," he said. "It's not a newsworthy item. We need harmony, not dissension in the community." "We're keeping strong" The case against them dismissed, the changes required to address Stevens' noise complaints aren't an easy fix for the faithful at El Gran Rey Jesus, an Apostolic international prophetic church. Abner Vazquez is the church's leader, going by the title Apostol, and says moving to the United Methodist Church's Memorial Hall has brought its hardships. "We're still here," Vazquez said, noting the move to the church gym instead of the usual worship or sanctuary area means his congregation has to set up and take down chairs before and after worship services. Vasquez indicated there may be more under the surface than just noise complaints. "The neighbor (Stevens) asked me, are you a legal resident; do you have papers? Oh my Lord," Vazquez said of Stevens' inquiries. Eyewitnesses from the church also reported that Stevens was writing down license plate numbers of vehicles parked at the church during El Gran Rey Jesus' services. In response to allegations that Stevens is targeting a select group of community residents, he said people can say anything they want. He called it "rabble rousing." Vazquez says the church has to stay true to its mission, even if it's been a struggle to retain some members following recent actions. "We have to keep the service to the Lord and teach people to live a better life," he says. He and wife Rosa Linda are no strangers to hurdles in finding a place to worship in Sunnyside. Early last year the couple hoped to house their ministry in the former H&H Furniture building at Sixth Street and Edison Avenue. That plan fell through when they learned the building was only approved for commercial use. El Gran Rey Jesus (the Great King Jesus) began meeting in the Sunnyside United Methodist building last August. By December 2012, Stevens was filing complaints with the police department. "It's not easy, but we're keeping strong," Vazquez said. More church citations? Schenck says to his knowledge El Gran Rey Jesus is the first church in Sunnyside to ever be cited for unnecessary noise. But it may not be the last. Schenck said he is concerned the city will have to deal with more church-related noise complaints in the future because of how the city noise ordinance is written. "Modern praise worship music is including a lot more amplified guitars and drums, and that can create a problem if it can be heard more than 50 feet away of its source," he explained.