Edmonton

Street preachers worry noise complaints aimed at their message, not volume

A street preacher who uses an amplifier to share the gospel is worried the city's efforts to turn down the volume on his sermons isn't about the noise, but about silencing his message.

City staff investigate ways to quiet the preachers

Edmonton is exploring ways to regulate the use of amplifiers in public spaces after a series of complaints about soapbox preachers.

A street preacher who uses an amplifier to share the gospel is worried the city's efforts to turn down the volume on his sermons isn't about the noise, but about silencing his message.

"I think the noise complaint is really a content complaint, wrapped in a noise complaint," said Nehemia Smeding, who preaches on street corners twice per week.

City councillors said they've received several complaints from the public and nearby businesses who say the preacher and others like him are too loud and causing a nuisance.

Smeding said he and his fellow street preachers use amplifiers so their message can be heard over the roar of traffic and crowds downtown.

"In order for us to be heard and in order for the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to go out … for that reason we use amplification," he said.

Smeding said preachers have been singled out by the city, since street musicians are often just as loud as he is, or louder.

In order for us to be heard and in order for the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to go out … for that reason we use amplification.- Nehemia Smeding

Councillors said their discussion was only about noise, not religious freedom.

The preachers have never had to pay a fine for infringing on noise bylaws, and they've always turned down the volume when asked by a bylaw officer, Smeding said.

Councillor Michael Oshry first brought the issue to council's attention. He said since inquiring about the preachers, he's heard dozens of complaints from the public about amplifiers on the streets.

He asked city staff to look at what other cities are doing to curb amplified noise on sidewalks.

Buskers who want to perform on transit property need to obtain permits. A city reports suggests the city could handle street preachers the same way, although the issue would need additional study.

The city could also keep preachers from setting up right outside entrances to buildings

"I wanna just make sure that if someone is walking down the street they're not forced to listen to something they don't want to hear," he said.

Coun. Mike Nickel said he's uncomfortable with a permit system for regulating religious speech.

"It frightens me," he said.

City staff said they didn't believe changes to the noise bylaw are necessary given the low number of complaints, but said they will take direction from council.

They will return to the city's community services committee in April with further options to turn down the volume of the preachers.

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