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Police: No Christmas carols on public sidewalk

Video captures police silencing pro-life carolers after abortion business complains

Tuesday, Dec 22, 2015

Attorney sound bite:  Matt Bowman

UPDATE:  The city of Falls Church has agreed to allow Christmas caroling on public sidewalks.  Read more >>

FALLS CHURCH, Va. – Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter Monday to the Falls Church Police Department after two officers told several Christmas carolers to stop singing on a public sidewalk outside of an abortion business. One of the carolers captured the officers on video (YouTube | Vimeo) informing the carolers that singing is prohibited under a noise ordinance and that they must cease singing.

The letter explains that police cannot use the ordinance to stop a constitutionally protected free speech activity, like common Christmas caroling, on a public sidewalk. The letter asks the city to rescind its ban on Christmas caroling in time for the carolers to return to the sidewalk at noon Wednesday.

“No city ordinance can trump the First Amendment. It’s preposterous to think that any noise ordinance can or should be used to stop the singing of Christmas carols on a public sidewalk,” said ADF Senior Counsel Matt Bowman. “We have come to an odd place in America when an abortion business thinks it can silence Christmas carolers. The police should not be willing to do their bidding.”

In the video, two Falls Church police officers are seen speaking to the carolers while they are singing “Silent Night” at 900 S. Washington St. The officers inform the group that “the singing violates our ordinance.” One of them then displays a copy of the city’s noise ordinance, which states, “It shall be unlawful for any person to yell, shout, talk loudly, whistle or sing on any public street or private property in the city at anytime, so as to cause a noise disturbance.”

Mary Flores, the caroler recording the video, then asks for clarification from the officers, “It says here…that there’s no singing allowed?” “Yes, ma’am,” the officer replies. Flores’s daughter then asks, “Isn’t this public property?” The officer responds, “Unfortunately it’s a noise ordinance violation, on public or private property.”

After receiving the officers’ threat of citation under the city ordinance, Flores and the group stopped their caroling for fear of prosecution. The ordinance imposes a penalty of “confinement in jail for not more than 12 months and a fine of not more than $2,500.00, either or both.”

The ordinance defines “noise” as “any sound which annoys or disturbs humans or which causes or tends to cause an adverse psychological or physiological effect on humans,” and “noise disturbance” as “any sound which: (1) Endangers or injures the safety or health of humans or animals; (2) Annoys or disturbs a reasonable person of normal sensitivities….”

“The Constitution prohibits the City of Falls Church from threatening pro-lifers with fines and jail time for singing Christmas carols on the public sidewalk…,” the ADF letter explains, concluding that the ordinance violates freedom of speech and is unconstitutionally vague.

“Christmas carols are obviously not a ‘noise disturbance’ to ‘a reasonable person of normal sensitivities’ as set forth in the ordinance…. Instead, the officers imposed their Christmas-caroling ban solely as a response to the hostility of abortion facility staff to the pro-life Christian viewpoint…. The fact that abortion workers are ‘annoyed’ or ‘disturbed’ by the singing of ‘Silent Night’ outside the location where they assist the destruction of infant humans is not a legitimate basis under the First Amendment to suppress the singing.”
  • Pronunciation guide: Bowman (BOH’-min)
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.

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ABOUT Matt Bowman

Matt Bowman serves as senior counsel and director of regulatory practice for Alliance Defending Freedom, where he leads the team focusing on the impact of administrative law on religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and family. From 2017 to 2020, Bowman was a senior executive service appointee in the Trump administration, serving the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as Deputy General Counsel, and then in the Office for Civil Rights. Prior to joining HHS, Bowman was an accomplished litigator at ADF for over ten years. Before joining ADF in 2006, Bowman served as a law clerk for Judges Samuel A. Alito, Jr., and Michael A. Chagares, at the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and for Judge John M. Roll at the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. Bowman earned his J.D. summa cum laude and was first in his class at Ave Maria School of Law in 2003. He is a member of the bar of the District of Columbia and Michigan and is admitted to practice at the U.S. Supreme Court and multiple federal appellate and district courts.