Religion out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism

By Isaac Weiner | Go to book overview

5
A New Constitutional World and the Illusory Ideal of Neutrality

The Supreme Court’s decision in Saia v. New York, along with the other Jehovah’s Witness cases of the 1930s and 1940s, ushered in a new constitutional world. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, noise had primarily been regulated as a public or private nuisance. Complainants had to demonstrate that an offending sound interfered materially with their reasonable enjoyment of property or the ordinary comfort of life and that it could be expected to affect all ordinary hearers in the same way. By the middle of the twentieth century, most U.S. cities had adopted a more systematic approach to regulating noise by crafting broadly applicable municipal antinoise ordinances. The majority and dissenting opinions in Saia all authorized this course by affirming that such ordinances pursued a legitimate state interest. Yet the Court also made clear that this interest in reducing noise had to be weighed against the First Amendment rights of noisemakers, including rights of free speech and religious free exercise, which were now to be enforced against municipal and state actions.

The Court’s decision in Saia emphasized that cities could not prohibit the use of amplification devices altogether, but they could impose reasonable restrictions, provided that they did so in a way that was deemed neutral with regard to content. This decision was consistent with Cantwell v. Connecticut, in which the Court had ruled that cities could not prohibit religious groups from preaching or disseminating their views, but could regulate the time, place, and manner of engaging in such activities in order to “safeguard the peace, good order, and comfort of the community.” Taken together, these cases began to define the constitutional parameters within which religious noise could be regulated, yet they still left many important questions unresolved. What specific standards would be deemed reasonable for differentiating acceptable sound from unwanted noise, for example? How would courts strike a proper balance between respecting the rights of noisemakers and the rights of unwilling listeners? How could they ensure that complaints about

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Religion out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • North American Religions ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - The Sounds of Power 17
  • 1 - From Sacred Noise to Public Nuisance 19
  • 2 - Church Bells in the Industrial City 40
  • Part II - The Sounds of Dissent 77
  • 3 - A New Regulatory Regime 79
  • 4 - Sound Car Religion and the Right to Be Left Alone 98
  • Part III - The Sounds of Difference 137
  • 5 - A New Constitutional World and the Illusory Ideal of Neutrality 139
  • 6 - Calling Muslims—And Christians—To Pray 158
  • Conclusion 195
  • Notes 209
  • Index 245
  • About the Author 251
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