Designation of a Church as a Historical Landmark

This designation may violate churches’ constitutional rights.

Can a city prevent a church from altering its sanctuary by designating it a "landmark"?

That was the issue before the Washington Supreme Court in an important ruling. 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.

The supreme court began its opinion by emphasizing that its decision "will be welcomed throughout the United States" since it would be the first decision to address the application of city landmark laws to churches. The court noted that for a church to establish a violation of its constitutional right to freely exercise its religion, it must demonstrate that "the government has placed a substantial burden on the observation of a central religious belief or practice" and that the government's conduct is not justified by a "compelling governmental interest."

The court concluded that the city's landmark law did place a substantial burden on the church's religious practices, and that no compelling governmental interest justified the burden: "The practical effect of the [ordinance] is to require a religious organization to seek secular approval of matters potentially affecting the church's practice of its religion." This "creates unjustified governmental interference in religious matters of the church and thereby creates an infringement on the church's constitutional right of free exercise."

The court concluded: "We hold that the preservation of historical landmarks is not a compelling state interest. Balancing the right of free exercise [of religion] with the aesthetic and community values associated with landmark preservation, we find that the latter is clearly outweighed by the constitutional protection of free exercise of religion and the public benefits associated with the practice of religious worship within the community."

What this means for churches

What is the significance of this case? An increasing number of cities are adopting landmark laws, and it is certain that many churches will be designated "landmarks." Churches that at first are honored to be designated "landmarks" often come to regret the designation when they realize the substantial decrease in the value of their property and the legal restrictions that apply to the alteration, demolition, or sale of their property. There is now an important legal precedent available to churches wishing to avoid these negative consequences. First Covenant Church v. City of Seattle, 787 P. 2d 1352 (Wash. 1990).

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