The trial of two Fallbrook pastors charged with disturbing the peace began Monday with the prosecution arguing that the two were "willful and malicious" in making unreasonable noise during church services.
The trial in Vista Municipal Court is expected to pit arguments of religious freedom against the rights of neighbors unhappy with noise.
Pastors Daniel Perez and Reynaldo Flores Pizano were handcuffed and arrested last October during services at their Kalmia Street church by sheriff's deputies responding to a complaint. One prosecution witness Monday described the sound coming from Apostolic Church of the Faith of Jesus Christ as "happy noises," while another said it was "unnerving" and with "a pitch that reminds me of a riot."
According to sheriff's reports, about 20 complaints were filed in a four-month period because of noise from the tiny church, where services are animated. Neighbors were upset because the church's public address system disturbed the quiet in the residential area.
"I see this trial as a noise disturbance case--a group of individuals conducting themselves in such a manner as to cause loud and unreasonable noise," Deputy Dist. Atty. David Berry said.
However, the American Civil Liberties Union, which is working with defense lawyers in the case, sees the case as a potential infringement of religious freedom under the First Amendment.
"It was clear even from the state's testimony that the people (in the church) were involved in worshiping, and the focus of the complaint was a worship service," said Betty Wheeler, legal director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties.
"Our position is that everything that gave rise to the complaint flowed from the religious worship of the church, and that affects the abilities of the state to punish these ministers for their religious speech," she said.
The services did not pose a clear and present danger to the public, nor were they meant to annoy or harass anyone, and therefore they were protected by the First Amendment, Wheeler said.
Prosecutors maintain that the First Amendment does not protect the pastors from prosecution.
"If they are in fact in violation of the law, the protection of the First Amendment does not apply to them," Berry said. "The First Amendment is not a blanket of all immunity."