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Preservation Board’s Order Landmarking Church Being Challenged in Federal Court

By P.L. Wolff

As we were preparing to go to press, representatives of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, located at 16th and I Streets, NW, announced that they were filing a lawsuit in federal court challenging the December 6, 2007 action of the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) that their church building be listed as an historic landmark in, as they charge, contravention of the Constitution’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion as well as in contravention of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act and Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

That statute mandates that a government entity must have a “compelling governmental interest” before interfering with a religious institution’s religious exercise and that that interest must be satisfied in the least restrictive way. The lawsuit charges that “no compelling governmental interest relating to Third Church has ever been demonstrated or alleged.”

During last winter’s public comment period substantial opposition to the landmarking proposal was expressed both in writing and testimony by a wide range of persons and organizations, including Terry Lynch, Executive Director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations; Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and at-large Councilmember David Catania; the DC-based Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty; and the entire Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC).

Testifying on behalf of the ANC at the HPRB’s December 6, 2007 hearing on he matter of whether to order landmarking, Commissioners Bob Meehan and Mike Silverstein articulated the ANC’s unanimous opposition to the landmark application, and, especially, the commissioners’ strenuous objection to the proposed government interference in the ability of a religious community to use its land and building for effective worship and ministry consistent with what that community has determined are the dictates of its creed. (See, “City’s Preservation Board Orders Landmarking for Christian Science Church Near White House; Decision Viewed by Many as Incomprehensible,” InTowner, December 2007, page 1.)

Further enhancing the Church’s position regarding the obligation to protect the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom, is the bill now pending in the DC City Council, “Religious Freedom and Historic Preservation Conformance Amendments Act of 2008,” which would require the Constitutional rights of religious institutions be properly considered within the landmarking process.