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'Historic' building versus religious rights

A Christian Science congregation in Washington wants to build a new structure, but preservationists are resisting.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 12, 2009

‘Brutalist’ style: Members hope to replace this modernist building near the White House with a more welcoming church.

Robert Frazier/The Christian Science Monitor

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In Washington, D.C., Third Church of Christ, Scientist is the lead actor in a saga playing out in cities across the US.

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Local communities seeking to preserve historic buildings are contending with religious congregations that, for financial or other reasons, want to modify or tear down their buildings. The clashes have intensified since the 1990s with the passage of federal laws aimed at protecting religious institutions from land-use restrictions that interfere excessively with their "free exercise" of religion.

The Christian Science congregation, located just blocks from the White House in a unique building of modernist architecture, wants to demolish the structure and build a new church that is more energy-efficient and suitable for its needs.

"We want a church that is welcoming and fits the scale of the community, one that does not give the secretive, enclosed impression that this Brutalist building does," says J. Darrow Kirkpatrick, the church's coordinator for redevelopment.

But the District of Columbia's historic preservation board designated the church a historic landmark in December 2007 specifically because it is a strong example of Brutalism, an architectural style involving raw concrete and monolithic forms. In July 2008, the board turned down the church's request to raze the building.

In response, Third Church has filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the landmark restriction, alleging violation of two religious freedom laws and the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), for instance, when a religious group shows that a ruling would create "a substantial burden," officials must show they have a "compelling interest" for doing so. Third Church says that no compelling interest has been demonstrated.

Not only is the building too costly to maintain (i.e., requiring $8,000 in scaffolding to change light bulbs), the church says, but it is also not representative of its theology. And the church is being prevented from worshiping as it wants to.

As part of the historic preservation process before the case proceeds in court, District of Columbia city planner Harriet Tregoning is considering whether the refusal to allow demolition could result in "unreasonable economic hardship" for the church. If Ms. Tregoning finds that to be the case, she could decide as soon as late January to allow the demolition. If not, the case will move to the courts.

Although the 37-year-old building is too new to be designated historic in most jurisdictions (50 years is the norm), a group of local architects and preservationists sought the landmark status starting in 1991. They have offered to help the church consider various uses for the building to help pay for the expensive maintenance, from including gallery space to adding an office building above it.

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