The “adhan,” or the Islamic call to prayer, is meaningful only to Muslims. Recited in Arabic, it translates as: “God is most great, God is most great; I testify that there is no god but God; I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God; Come (alive) to the prayer; Come (alive) to flourishing; God is most great, God is most great; There is no god but God.”
In many predominantly Muslim countries, the call to prayer is broadcast over speakers five times each day from the minaret of each mosque, but in the United States, most Islamic Centers and mosques have issued the call from within their buildings to those already gathered for prayer. Cities in the United States haven’t traditionally allowed the call to prayer to be broadcast over speakers, potentially disturbing large swaths of the population with its distinctly religious message. Those cities that have allowed amplified broadcasting of the call to prayer have always imposed reasonable restrictions, including barring the earliest call and the latest, which can occur as early as 3:30 a.m. or as late as 11 p.m.
But more recently, the call to prayer has been receiving exemptions from noise ordinances in more and more cities across the country, including Hamtramck, Mich., Astoria, N.Y., and Paterson, N.J. This change has been hailed by some as a “victory for religious freedom.” However, allowing religious exemptions to neutral laws meant to protect everyone’s rights is not a victory for religious freedom; rather it’s a display of religious privilege.
Earlier this year, Minneapolis became the first major U.S. city to allow the Muslim call to prayer to be broadcast from mosques five times a day. The Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved a change to the city’s sound ordinance, eliminating time constraints that previously prevented the pre-dawn and evening prayer calls from being broadcast. The city had in 2020 allowed an exception for the call to prayer during the month of Ramadan but has now expanded it to be year round.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation immediately sent a complaint letter challenging the change, which allows religious organizations, including churches and mosques, to broadcast bells, chimes and amplified messages at all hours of the day. While the statute ostensibly allows any religious group to broadcast amplified messages to their community, it’s clear this change was made to specifically allow mosques to broadcast an amplified call to prayer as early as 3:30 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m. The change was pushed for by local mosques and Muslims and, tellingly, the ordinance was signed into law inside Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque.
The city of Minneapolis claimed that this change “ensures equal access for all people” and that it “benefits people of all faith,” but all this religious exemption has done is to carve out an exemption for the call to prayer, providing a special benefit to some members of the Muslim community at the expense of all those, including non-practicing Muslims, who don’t want to endure forced prayer throughout the day. This is not neutrality or a celebration of religious freedom but an imposition of one religious view and message onto all community members.
Rather than uniting diverse communities, as some have claimed, allowing religious organizations to disturb residents in the middle of the night with amplified calls to prayer alienates not only the nonreligious but also non-Muslims and even those Muslims who don’t wish to abide by the call. Those who benefit from these prayers are most often vastly outnumbered by those who are disturbed by them. For instance, Muslims make up just 1 percent of Minneapolis’ Hennepin County residents while 30 percent of Hennepin County residents are religiously unaffiliated.
Unfortunately, Minneapolis’ exemption has already led to strife and a series of attacks on mosques some believe to be a backlash to the exemption for the call to prayer. These attacks are disturbing and FFRF does not support the targeting of Muslims or any religious group. The problem isn’t Muslims; the problem is the privileging of religion. While the issue here revolves around how mosques are using noise exemptions, church bells played loudly at 3 in the morning would be just as worthy of condemnation.
In our modern age of cellphones, alarm clocks and all manner of digital devices, broadcasting a loud, amplified message to an entire community in order to facilitate the religious practices of a select group of members of that community is unnecessary on top of being unreasonable. Many news stories note that this is the first time that a call to prayer has been permitted to be broadcast in such a fashion in the United States in a big city. If worshippers have always managed to pray on their own without this exemption, they don’t need it now.
Since broadcasting an amplified call to prayer five times a day is not necessary for Muslims to practice their faith, the exemption is not reinforcing religious liberty, but is just another instance of favoritism for religious citizens. There is no need for a city to exempt the call to prayer from noise ordinances and I hope that other cities don’t follow in Minneapolis footsteps, although I fear they will.
Our laws should treat religion neutrally — with neither hostility nor favoritism, as the Constitution requires.