Recent Developments in New York Regarding Zoning

A federal court in New York ruled that a city did not violate the rights of neighbors by refusing to enforce a noise ordinance against a church that broadcast amplified music from its steeple.

Church Law and Tax1998-03-01


Key point. Churches sometimes engage in activites that result in elevated noise levels for neighboring landowners. The fact that the city government chooses not to enforce a noise ordinance against the church does not necessarily violate the rights of neighbors.

A federal court in New York ruled that a city did not violate the rights of neighbors by refusing to enforce a noise ordinance against a church that broadcast amplified music from its steeple. For two weeks in 1994 a Congregational church broadcast amplified sounds and music for lengthy periods of time from speakers located in its steeple. Certain neighbors found the volume and duration of these sounds so distressful that they called the state police to advise them of the noises. The state trooper who responded to the call allegedly told the neighbors that the noises were loud enough to constitute a violation of state law. The neighbors also insisted that the church’s actions violated a village ordinance relating to “peace and good order,” which prohibits persons or organizations from ringing a bell or making other improper noises that disturb the peace, comfort, or health of the community. The city council and district attorney’s office both refused to act on the neighbors’ complaints. A court eventually directed the church to limit the amount of sounds and music which were being amplified from its steeple. The neighbors later sued the city, claiming that its refusal to enforce the law demonstrated an improper preference for the church that deprived the neighbors of their civil rights, including their constitutional right to equal protection of the law. They further maintain that the city’s actions violated the first amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause. The neighbors demanded a money judgement to compensate them for their injuries, and insisted that the city enforce state and local law against the church and ensure that the church and its representatives were held responsible for their criminal conduct.

A state appeals court rejected the neighbors’ claims. First, it ruled that the city had not violated the neighbors’ constitutional right to the equal protection of the laws. It acknowledged that the 14th amendment guarantees that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” However, the court pointed out that an equal protection claim requires a showing of intentional discrimination, and this requires proof that “similarly situated persons” have been treated differently. The neighbors failed to present such evidence. Further, the court ruled that the city’s failure to enforce state and local law did not violate the first amendment. In particular, it noted that the neighbors failed to explain how a failure to enforce a noise ordinance amounts to state action endorsing religion. It also pointed out that a local court did impose restrictions to reduce the amount of noise coming from the church. The court concluded: “Plaintiffs have alleged that the loudness and duration of the church music was distressful to them, and the town does not deny this accusation. Indeed, although some might consider the church’s actions unneighborly or lacking in Christian forbearance, unneighborly behavior is not necessarily unconstitutional behavior. Given the facts and circumstances as plaintiffs have alleged them, there can be no argument that defendants’ actions violated plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.” Diehl v. Village of Antwerp, 964 F.Supp. 646 (N.D.N.Y. 1997). [ Nuisance]

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