Telegraph Merchants Petition Against Amplified Preaching

By Judith Scherr
Thursday July 17, 2008 - 09:40:00 AM
SOS Ministries, which sets up its amplifiers at Haste Street and Telegraph Avenue, say its making music and preaching to save souls. Nearby merchants want them muzzled.
By Judith Scherr
SOS Ministries, which sets up its amplifiers at Haste Street and Telegraph Avenue, say its making music and preaching to save souls. Nearby merchants want them muzzled.

“Where will you spend eternity?” The preacher’s saving souls. His voice—amplified at no more than 65 decibels according to SOS Ministries—resonates through speakers, carrying the message of salvation through Jesus Christ along the Telegraph Avenue/Haste Street corridors. 

And also, it goes into nearby offices and shops, not to mention penetrating—assaulting, some say—the ears of open-air vendors and Telegraph Avenue strollers,. 

Lawrence Rosenbaum and his ministry have been preaching for more than 20 years on the Berkeley avenue and in San Francisco. 

Some 80 people who work near Haste and Telegraph have had enough of them. A petition bearing their names was handed to the City Council June 24. It targets not only “clogging up our corner on our busiest day of the week, specifically to interfere with our business,” but also “our city government [officials], who have done nothing on our behalf over the many years we have had this issue in our face.”  

Initiated by Marc Weinstein of Amoeba Records—Weinstein was on vacation and unavailable for comment—the petition is now in the hands of the city manager’s staff. 

Deputy City Manager Christine Daniel told the Planet that city staff is addressing the issue by updating an outdated noise ordinance. 

She pointed out, however, that no ordinance would address the content of speech, something the petition emphasizes. 

“We wouldn’t consider regulating speech,” she said. 

Rosenbaum, who describes himself as Jewish and an evangelical Christian, said, similarly, that the problem that “a small minority” have is with the content and not the decibel level. 

“There’s a few people who don’t like us,” he said. “It’s the message they don’t like—not everyone likes Christians in Berkeley.”  

While the petition touches on the noise level, citing, “large and loud rallies,” it focuses mostly on what the evangelicals are saying and who the messenger is. 

“We, as locals, are insulted, not only by the message coming from these folks that we, as a community, are somehow in need of ‘saving’ by way of their particularly base and dogmatic way of seeing the world,” the petition says, adding that “none of these ‘performers’ or ‘preachers’ or ‘leafleters’ are actually from our community and know very little of our community.”  

It would be improper for the city to limit noise permits by where the applicant lives, Daniel says. 

The city gets involved only when the complaint is about the noise level, Daniel said.  

Complaints go to Manuel Ramirez, environmental health manager. 

“We respond to all complaints,” Ramirez told the Planet. “We go out and monitor levels and have found no violations.” 

That’s because the preachers turn down the volume to the required 65 decibels when they see the monitors coming, said Roland Peterson, who heads the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District and has an office some 60 yards from the gathering point of SOS Ministries.  

“It would take someone undercover” to get an accurate meter reading, he said, noting that he can hear the preachers and their music with his office doors closed. 

Chris (who did not want to give his last name) works at Zebra Tattoo, near Haste and Telegraph. “Every Saturday they get on the microphone and say if you don’t believe, you’re going to hell. They say it very loud, so loud you can hear everything inside our store,” he said. 

Peterson further pointed to the Berkeley Municipal Code, which has a clause saying, “The volume of sound shall be so controlled that it will not be unreasonably loud, raucous, jarring, disturbing or a nuisance to reasonable persons of normal sensitiveness within the area of audibility.” 

And so, apparently, a reasonable person could go through the appeals process described in Section 13.40.120 of the municipal code, which directs the aggrieved party to the Community Health Advisory Committee. 

The problem, however, is that the CHAC has not existed for “many, many years,” according to Health and Human Services Director Fred Medrano. 

Staff is currently at work on a new noise ordinance, which would respond to that vacuum, Ramirez said. Daniel and Ramirez said they were not ready to speak more fully about the ordinance, which will come before the City Council Sept. 16. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes the Telegraph Avenue area, said rewriting the ordinance will be challenging given the need to respect the free speech of diverse groups such as Code Pink and SOS Ministries. He said perhaps the new rules can incorporate having the applicant move their proselytizing to different streets in the area. 

The petition concludes on a bitter note: “Any lip service the city government pays to helping build an improved business/residential destination around Telegraph Avenue is rendered laughable as they continue to allow the ‘skid row’ preachers to make a mess of our street.”