Church Buildings as Historical Landmarks

Designation of a church as a landmark may violate the First Amendment.

Key point: City ordinances that allow church buildings to be designated as historical "landmarks" may violate the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled that a Seattle ordinance that allowed city officials to designate a church building as a "landmark," thereby limiting a church's authority to sell or modify its building, violated the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom.

The city of Seattle adopted an ordinance giving the city authority to declare any building to be a landmark. The ordinance was designed to preserve and protect those sites reflecting significant elements of the city's cultural or historic heritage. Buildings designated as a landmark by the city could not be structurally altered without city approval. The city designated a church to be a landmark, and the church sued the city arguing that the landmarks ordinance violated the church's constitutional right to freely exercise its religion.

Specifically, the church claimed that its designation as a landmark impaired its religious freedom in the following ways: (1) city approval and bureaucratic "red tape" would be required prior to making any structural alterations in the sanctuary; (2) a secular government had the authority to grant or deny a church's request to develop its worship facility; (3) the value of the church property was decreased significantly by the landmark designation; and (4) the ability of the church to sell its property was diminished.

A trial court rejected the church's claims, but the case was then appealed directly to the state supreme court which agreed with the church's position. However, the United States Supreme Court later "vacated" the Washington Supreme Court's ruling and ordered it to reconsider the case in light of the recently decided Smith case.

In Smith, the United States Supreme Court repudiated a longstanding rule that a government practice that interferes with the free exercise of religion must be supported by a compelling government interest to be valid. Presumably, the Supreme Court assumed that the Smith case would require the Washington Supreme Court to reverse its previous ruling. Such was not the case.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled that the Smith case did not compel a reversal of its prior ruling in favor of the church. It based this conclusion on two considerations. First, the landmarks ordinance was not a neutral law of general applicability. Second, the court relied on the Smith case itself, in which the Supreme Court concluded that the "compelling government interest" requirement would still be required in "hybrid" cases involving not only freedom of religion but also a second constitutional right.

In this case, the court concluded that the city's landmark designation law violated not only the church's first amendment right to freely exercise its religion, but also its first amendment right of free speech since a church building is itself "an expression of Christian belief and message" that is "freighted with religious meaning." Since the city's landmark law burdened two of the church's constitutional rights, it had to be supported by a compelling government interest.

Such an interest, the court concluded, simply did not exist: "We hold that the city's interest in preservation of aesthetic and historic structures is not compelling and it does not justify the infringement of [the church's] right to freely exercise religion. The possible loss of significant architectural elements is a price we must accept to guarantee the paramount right of religious freedom." The court also concluded that its decision was mandated by the Washington state constitution, which contains a broader protection of religious liberty than that contained in the federal constitution. First Covenant Church v. City of Seattle, 840 P.2d 174 (Wash. 1992).

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