Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Churches' Interiors as Landmarks
Designation as a historical landmark may violate a church's rights.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the City of Boston could not declare a church's interior as a "landmark." Faced with an aging, oversized building, the leaders of a Catholic church adopted a plan to renovate the facility into office, counseling, and residential space. When work began, ten citizens promptly asked the city to designate the interior of the church as a landmark. The city approved the citizens' request, and prohibited permanent alteration of "the nave, chancel, vestibule and organ loft on the main floor—the volume, window glazing, architectural detail, finishes, painting, the organ, and organ case." Church leaders filed a lawsuit, claiming that their constitutional right to freely exercise their religion was violated by the city' action. The court agreed. It relied entirely on a provision in the state constitution specifying that "no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshiping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; or for his religious profession or sentiments; provided he doth not disturb the public peace, or obstruct others in their religious worship." This provision, noted the court, "plainly contemplates broad protection for religious worship" that was violated by the city declaring the interior of the church as a landmark. In rejecting the city's claim that it was merely addressing a "secular question of interior design," the court observed that "the configuration of the church interior is so freighted with religious meaning that it must be considered part and parcel of [Catholic] religious worship." Accordingly, the court concluded that the state constitution "protects the right freely to design interior space for religious worship, thus barring the government from regulating changes in such places, provided that no public safety question is presented." Society of Jesus v. Boston Landmarks Commission, 564 N.E.2d 571 (Mass. 1991).

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Posted: January 1, 1992
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