Churches as Historical Landmarks

Ordinances barring church modifications may be unconstitutional.

Church Law and Tax 1996-03-01

Church Property

Key point. City ordinances that allow church buildings to be designated as historical “landmarks,” thereby preventing any structural modifications without city approval, may violate the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom.

A Washington court ruled that a city could designate historic churches as “landmarks,” but could not restrict the use of such properties until they ceased to be used for church purposes. A church was nominated for protection as a “landmark” by a city commission pursuant to a local ordinance. This meant that the church was prevented from making any changes to its facility without the prior approval of a city “landmarks board.” The church sued the city, claiming that the landmarks ordinance violated the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. Specifically, the church argued that the city had no authority to designate or nominate a church as a landmark, and could not interfere with a church’s decisions to modify its facilities. A state appeals court concluded that “[m]erely designating property as a landmark … does not interfere with the free exercise of religion.” However, it ruled that the “placing of restrictions” on church property causes “prohibited interference” with the free exercise of religion: “The city may still choose to designate the church building as a landmark, but the landmarks board cannot restrict modification of the structure in any way unless and until the structure ceases to be used primarily for religious purposes. Thus [the church] need not seek any approval from the landmarks board before modifying its church building, so long as the building is being used primarily for religious purposes.” First United Methodist Church v. Hearing Examiner, 887 P.2d 473 (Wash. App. Div. 1 1995). [ Church Landmarking]

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