A Van Nuys Municipal Court commissioner ruled Friday that the Salvation Army may preach and solicit contributions outside a Sherman Oaks office building--as long as members turn down the volume.
Commissioner Manly D. Calof said the religious and charitable organization may continue to exhort passers-by at the corner of Ventura and Sepulveda boulevards to repent, rejoice and contribute to its cause. But the proselytizing must be inaudible inside the nearby Trans World Bank Building, Calof cautioned.
Calof's ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the building's owners, United Properties Co., seeking a preliminary injunction to oust the organization from the privately owned open space.
Since July, attorneys and accountants laboring through their lunch hours inside the 13-story building have been distracted daily by fluegelhorn music, tambourines, hymn singing and amplified readings of Leviticus from the pavement below, the building's owners claimed.
Stuart Brand, an attorney on the third floor of the building, said he is bothered each day by the group's "singing, preaching, ranting and raving from 12 to 1."
Salvation Army officials said they are not sure exactly what Calof's order means but they'll stop using amplifiers while they study it and decide whether to contest the matter in court.
"Am I allowed to use a megaphone?" Capt. John Purdell, 57, head of the group's San Fernando Valley operations, wondered aloud after the hearing.
Salvation Army officials say amplification of some sort is necessary to be heard above the traffic, and moving to another spot is out of the question because the intersection is the busiest in the Valley, perfect for exhorting the populace.
Besides, they have pledged to God to read the Bible from start to finish at that spot, Purdell said. The group entered a Bible into evidence.
The organization has sporadically used the site for six years without objections, said Alan L. Rosen, an attorney representing the building's owners. Rosen said he was satisfied with the ruling.
"In the past, the army would come for a day and then leave, three or four times a year," he said. But in July, the organization stepped up its schedule to one-hour sessions seven days a week.
The army balked at informal requests from the building's owners to move. When building maintenance workers erected makeshift barricades with sawhorses and strands of nylon ribbon, Purdell ceremoniously cut the ribbons and resumed preaching. The owners then filed suit.
Calof did not address lawsuit allegations that the army was "accosting" some tenants and their clients in an attempt to get contributions.
In a declaration filed with the court, attorney Benjamin Felton, who works in the building, said he was asked for a donation twice on Oct. 17 as he left for and returned from lunch.
According to Rosen, one passer-by was told that a homeless family could be fed for the cost of a pack of cigarettes.
Purdell denies that verbal solicitations are made.
"We never asked people for money. Talk to anybody who's seen us," he said in a pleasant, clipped British accent. "I personally abhor buttonholing, accosting and intimidating. If any comment was made, perhaps it was by an overly enthusiastic worker."
Purdell also denied another allegation: that Salvation Army workers dance during the daily proselytizing sessions.
"Maybe it's referring to the fact that when I sing an up-tempo gospel song, I have difficulty keeping my feet still," he said.
Purdell said the organization has received letters from people who say they have seen and heard the group at the Ventura Boulevard site. Some say they have been moved to tears. Others enclose money and urge the group to keep up its good work, Purdell said.
Money collected by the organization goes toward operating shelters for homeless men in Van Nuys and Canoga Park, feeding the homeless, and providing hotel rooms for homeless children and their parents, Purdell said.
The U. S. Supreme Court has ruled that private property open to the public can be used by charitable, political and other groups. In the 1980 case of Pruneyard Shopping Center vs. Robins, the court upheld a California Supreme Court decision that the state had a right to require a mall near San Jose to serve as a public forum. But the court said the mall may impose reasonable rules and restrictions.