Church Designated as “Historic Landmark”

Court rules that designation violates religious freedom.

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 city's designation of a church as an "historic landmark" violated the church's constitutional right of religious freedom.

Many cities have enacted ordinances giving the city council the authority to designate buildings as landmarks. Such a designation may prohibit the landowner from modifying or selling the building. When these ordinances are applied to churches, a serious conflict with the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom can result.

This was the issue confronting the Washington Supreme Court in an important ruling. A Methodist church in downtown Seattle was erected in 1909. In 1985 the building was designated as a landmark by the city, and the church was informed that it was prohibited from making any alterations or significant changes to the church's interior or exterior without city approval, unless "such changes were necessitated by changes in the liturgy." Church leaders decided to demolish the building, sell the land for commercial development, and use the proceeds to build a smaller sanctuary on another site.

They noted that the congregation had diminished significantly in recent years due to the development of hospitals, highways, and commercial buildings in its immediate vicinity. The church asked a court to strike down the landmark ordinance on the ground that it violated the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. A trial court ruled that the city could never designate the church building as a landmark, and the city appealed.

A state appeals court ruled that the city could designate the church as a landmark so long as it refrained from imposing any limitations on the use of the property while the church used it for primarily religious purposes. The appeals court permitted the church to demolish its sanctuary only if it replaced it with a new building devoted to religious use on the same property. The church appealed this ruling to the state supreme court, arguing that these limitations were unduly restrictive and that it had a constitutionally protected right to demolish the building and sell the land for commercial development.

The state supreme court agreed, noting that the landmark ordinance violated the church's constitutional rights of speech and religion and therefore it could be sustained only if it furthered a compelling governmental interest. No such interest existed, the court concluded. The court noted any attempt to delay implementation of the landmark regulations until the church ceased to use the property primarily for religious purposes did not help.

The court pointed out that the phrase "primarily for religious purposes" is ambiguous, and that it would entangle the courts in deciding what is "religious." For example, what if the church elected to use the property for a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, child care center, counseling center, or retreat? Are these activities religious? Should the city have the sole authority to make this decision, even if contrary to the church's position?

On the other hand, the court refused to hold that all landmark designations of churches are unconstitutional. It noted that some churches are not opposed to landmark status and some even desire it. Therefore, designation of a church as a landmark will be impermissible only if there is a demonstrated burden on the church's exercise of religion. In this case, the landmark designation severely burdened the church's exercise of religion because it prevented the church from selling its property and using the proceeds to advance its religious mission. First United Methodist Church v. Hearing Examiner, 916 P.2d 374 (Wash. 1996).

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