Supporters of Humanist Hall, a progressive church in Oakland, are rallying to save the church’s reputation after the city officially declared it a “public nuisance” in June. A petition urging the city to remove the “nuisance” label has already received more than 1450 signatures from church advocates and members of the Oakland community.
The 27th street Humanist church, which was established in 1935 and is also known as the Fellowship of Humanity, doubles as a performing arts venue and regularly hosts private parties and community events. In the past, it’s been the location for public meetings, art shows, weddings, birthday parties and nonprofit meetings. As a Humanist organization, members of the church are generally nontheistic and stress the importance of living an ethical life without supernaturalism. Humanist Hall states that it is specifically devoted to social justice, equality and ecological preservation.
According to the Humanist Hall website and several of its members, the church provides a low-cost, rentable venue to underserved members of the community and is an asset to Oakland’s diverse spiritual and artistic groups. But according to several neighbors who have posted videos of the venue’s music on YouTube, the Hall is often the site of parties that result in neighborhood and noise disturbances.
Gregory Minor, assistant to the city administrator, said in an email to the Express that the city has been receiving complaints about Humanist Hall since “at least 2005,” and that “the complaints have consisted mostly of excessive noise.”
On June 2, David Oertel, president of the Humanist Hall and Fellowship of Humanity, received a 30-day notice to abate “nuisance activity” at the church, which, according to the notice, includes hosting events after 10 p.m. and playing “excessive and annoying” music. In the notice, the city fined the Fellowship of Humanity a $3,500 Nuisance Case Fee and warned of a potential fine of $500 in daily penalties up to $365,000 a year should the nuisance persist.
After receiving the abatement notice, Oertel says he was able to work with the city and reach a compliance agreement that would put a stay on all fines assessed. In exchange, the Fellowship agreed to abide by conditions outlined in the compliance plan, which included having one state-licensed security guard on site for every fifty guests present, submission of monthly event calendars to members of the Oakland Police Department, and termination of all amplified sound after 10 p.m., among other stipulations.
Oertel says some of these conditions have been difficult to meet, especially those that require additional expenditures. In early July, The Fellowship was issued a compliance violation for a June 26 noise disturbance that occurred during a graduation ceremony for Bay Area Women Against Rape crisis counselors.
“Based on neighbor complaints and video documentation posted on YouTube, Humanist Hall has violated their agreement and our office is citing them accordingly,” said Minor in an email. Neighbors who filed complaints against Humanist Hall could not be reached for comment.
The church was fined $1,000 for the violation — funds that Oertel says the church does not have, as events hosted there are primarily for community benefit and sustainability, not for profit. If the city continues to levy such “heavy” fines, it puts the church in jeopardy of closing, said Oertel.
Rather than the complaints being an issue of noise, Oertel believes that the church is being targeted because it occupies land desirable to real estate investors. Since being declared a nuisance, the Fellowship has been receiving unsolicited offers from contractors hoping to build office space. But Oertel insists that the church is not for sale. “This isn’t about the money,” he said. “It’s about the good we do here.”
Oertel says that in the future, he will follow the compliance agreement, but wishes the city would rethink labeling the historic property a “nuisance.” In his eyes, the label is damaging to a building that has a history of benefitting the community.