For Whom the Bell Tolls

What to do when the sound of church bells is not music to a neighborhood’s ears.

Background. Many churches broadcast chimes and carillon music to their neighborhoods through bells in a steeple or electronic equipment. These broadcasts are inspiring and uplifting to many. But some neighbors may find the noise disturbing or even offensive. Do these neighbors have a legal right to stop the music? That was the issue addressed by a New York court.

Facts. A Presbyterian church played hourly chimes and in addition played carillon music at noon and 6 o’clock in the evening. A neighbor asked a court to stop the church from broadcasting the chimes and carillon music on the ground that it was “a complete disruption of her family life, prevents a child from sleeping, invades the privacy of her residence, and creates unnecessary stress.” The neighbor claimed that the chimes and music were a “private nuisance.”

The court’s ruling. The court began its opinion by observing that “what may be music to the ears of some can, in certain circumstances, be a nuisance to the ears of others.” It noted that a “private nuisance” is a use of one’s property in a way that causes an unreasonable and “substantial interference” with a neighbor’s enjoyment of his or her property. Did the church’s daily performance of chimes and carillon music create an unreasonable and substantial interference with the neighbor’s property? No, said the court. It pointed to an affidavit (submitted by the church) from an expert in noise management showing that the sound levels caused by the chimes and carillon music were “no greater than the sound from a passing automobile, of which some 6,500 passed [the neighbor’s] property each day.” The court also pointed to affidavits from 15 other neighbors who found the bells and chimes to be pleasant and inspirational.

Importance to church treasurers. If your church broadcasts chimes or carillon music to your neighborhood, and neighbors complain about the noise and threaten to take legal action if it does not stop, follow the lead of the church in this case by: (1) obtaining the opinion of a noise engineer who can compare the noise levels of your chimes or carillon music to other commonly accepted noises; and (2) obtaining the affidavits of several neighbors who find the bells and chimes pleasant and inspiring. These actions will reduce the likelihood that the complaining neighbors will be able to prove that the bells and chimes create an unreasonable and substantial interference to neighbors’ use and enjoyment of their properties. Langan v. Bellinger, 611 N.Y.S.2d 59 (A.D. 3 Dept. 1994).

This article originally appeared in Church Treasurer Alert, February 1996.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.
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