SUNNYSIDE, Wash. — A neighborhood noise dispute between a church and a dentist that grew into a religious freedom debate appears to be over.
With agreement from the city prosecutor, a Sunnyside municipal judge on June 10 dismissed a ticket for unnecessary noise against the Rev. Patricia Beeman, pastor of the United Methodist Church.
“Right now, everything seems to be reconciled,” Beeman said, speaking reluctantly to the Yakima Herald-Republic about an issue she hopes remains resolved.
Concerned about letting a simple noise citation — similar in legal ramifications to a traffic ticket — spiral into a civil rights argument, Prosecutor Bill Schuler offered no objection when Judge Ken Raber dismissed the case.
“It could have turned into a big constitutional mess,” Schuler said. Freedom of religion is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Both Schuler and Raber are Yakima attorneys who were temporarily filling their respective Sunnyside municipal court roles that week.
The issue first flared up early this year when Jim Stevens, a dentist who practices next door to the Edison Avenue church, complained about loud music during the indoor worship services of a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal congregation using the United Methodist building.
“That’s the way they worship and that’s an important part of their worship service,” Beeman said.
Stevens, a vocal proponent for aggressive police enforcement in Sunnyside, often decries the city’s gang influence at City Council meetings. He also has founded his own block watch organization called I-Watch and calls police often — more than 150 times since January 2011, according to dispatch records.
Over the course of several months, Stevens complained numerous times about the music to Beeman, congregation members and the police. Stevens sometimes practices on Sundays but complained about noise during other times of the week, too.
Sunnyside’s municipal code prohibits music from being heard more than 50 feet away. Sunnyside police have never had to enforce a noise ordinance on a church before, said Phil Schenck, longtime deputy chief of the Sunnyside Police Department.
“This is the first I’ve seen of these,” Schenck said.
Sunnyside was founded by a group of Christian churches — The Christian Cooperative Colony — and dubbed “The Holy City” on turn-of-the-20th-century maps.
Stevens’ emails to Schenck about the issue, obtained by the Yakima Herald-Republic through a public records request, often went beyond noise concerns.
“These same people are allowed to run rampant in the schools and other venues,” he wrote on April 28. “How many of this (religious) group are on welfare? How many are in the USA illegally? How many are gang affiliates?”
Stevens declined to discuss the issue other than to say it’s over and that he has considered United Methodist a good neighbor for 40 years.
“I think the issue is resolved by the people,” he said.
After he started complaining, officers visited and warned churchgoers about the noise. Schenck tried to help broker a compromise, touring the building and discussing with Beeman ways to dampen the sound, but said he came away with few answers.
He warned her that officers would have to write a ticket if they visited again.
“We want to work with our local business people and our local churches,” he said. “I don’t know that there was an easy resolution.”
On April 28, about 12:40 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, officers wrote a ticket to Beeman for $1,000.
“While standing on the steps (of the dental practice), I could hear the beat of drums and guitar through the walls,” Sgt. Ollie Hernandez wrote in a police report attached to the ticket. “Although the noise level was not very loud, it was estimated at 50 or more (feet) from the office to the east side of the church walls.”
Beeman told the officer she would try to quiet the congregation but promised to contest the fine, the report said.
“I thought it was a violation of our religious freedom rights,” Beeman said.
She hired an attorney but the dispute never reached the courtroom. Raber dismissed the ticket on June 10, a few days before her appearance, with prejudice, meaning the case cannot be refiled.
Since the ticket, the Pentecostal group has moved their meetings to the church gymnasium, which is farther away from Stevens’ office, Beeman said.
Complaints have stopped, but Beeman said the move creates a hardship for the congregation members, who must move chairs and equipment each Sunday. The group had been streaming the services live but have stopped because the gymnasium has no wireless Internet service, Beeman said.
Church officials have not discussed yet if the group will move back in the wake of the dismissal, she said.
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or email@example.com.