THE room is hot, the large table strewn with paper and debris, and New York City's Charter Revision Commission is just getting to the question of separation of church and state. ``The Founding Fathers had it easier,'' says Ernest Jetter, a panel member from Brooklyn, loosening his tie. ``They weren't in New York.'' But this is New York - where politics and religion are often part of the ethnic mix. This combination is giving problems to the 15-member Charter Revision Commission.
Its members are attempting to rewrite the city's charter, the local equivalent of the United States Constitution. On March 22 the US Supreme Court ruled that the current charter, in effect since 1963, violated the one-man, one-vote principle of the US Constitution.
Specifically, the ruling concerned the Board of Estimate, a powerful body with jurisdiction over zoning, contracts, and other important urban matters. The borough of Staten Island had as much say on the board as the borough of Brooklyn, even though Brooklyn has more than five times as many voters.
The major issues facing the Charter Commission - like eliminating the Board of Estimate and strengthening the City Council - have sailed through relatively smoothly. But local issues affecting specific constituencies have led to snags.
One example is the landmark status of old churches. Religious organizations want their property exempted from designation as historical landmarks. To do so, landmark groups counter, would mean that the charter would give special treatment to religious organizations in violation of the Constitution's required separation of church and state.
Fred W. Friendly, a commission member and author, disagrees. ``As land becomes more valuable and as the money available to religious organizations has been less,'' he says, ``the need for us to look at the whole problem of landmark preservation becomes almost paramount.''
Landmark battles are nothing new to New York City. In bitter, highly publicized contests, three local Episcopal churches - St. Bartholomew's, St. Paul's, and St. Andrew's - have tried unsuccessfully to overturn their landmark designations in recent years.
``These old buildings are inefficient and costly,'' says the Rev. N.J. L'Heureux Jr., executive director of the Queens Federation of Churches and president of the Inter-Faith Landmarks Commission. ``The Methodist church of St. Paul's spent well over half of its [annual] $125,000 budget on heating alone.''
``The landmark groups want to turn the churches, which could generate a lot of money to living congregations, into museums,'' Mr. L'Heureux adds. With their congregations dwindling and their old edifices an increasing burden, religious organizations want the right to sell.
Landmark groups point out that religious organizations already get the financial benefits of tax exemption. There are also loan programs and grants of various kinds. For instance, a Toxic Waste Clean Up Bond Act passed two years ago allocated funds for preservation and land acquisition of not-for-profit organizations to the owners of landmarked property.
``When an owner of a landmarked church decides to work within the law there are very successful stories,'' says Laurie Beckelman, executive director of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Miss Beckelman points specifically to the Eldridge Street synagogue, St. Ann's (Baptist) in Brooklyn, and the Church of the Holy Apostles (Episcopal) in Manhattan that each received money to restore their buildings.
The landmark groups also contend that hardship provisions exist for dealing with churches on a case-by-case basis. According to Carol Clark, director of the Municipal Art Society of New York, 16 hardship exemptions have been granted and the buildings have been demolished.
The Rev. Mr. L'Heureux counters that tax exemptions merely keep church and state separate. ``It's absurd to think that because we are given tax-exempt status they have a right to steal our property,'' he says.
New York is not alone in this problem. Chicago, for example, passed an ordinance that protected church property from being landmarked without the owners' consent. That ordinance, passed in 1987, has not been tested in the courts. It was originally the model for the New York Charter Commission's draft law.
But in a letter to commission chairman Frederick A.O. Schwarz, the National Trust for Historic Preservation warned against that course. ``The courts will have little difficulty in striking it down,'' the trust said of Chicago's ordinance.
Faced with this warning, the commission had to rethink its stand. It stepped gingerly and instead of specifically letting churches off the hook, it spoke in broader terms.
The commission has tentatively decided to exempt not-for-profit organizations if they prove that the landmark designation will interfere with their service to the community.
This debate has forced New York to reexamine the role of the church in a large urban environment. ``Spires, towers, and old fa,cades are part of the environment,'' says the Rev. Thomas Pike of Calvary and St. George's Episcopal churches in Manhattan.
These churches are both landmarked, Mr. Pike says, yet they still manage to provide more than 2,000 meals a month to the homeless. Money from the state pays for the food and his churches serve as the distribution centers. He says the landmark designation has helped rather than hurt because it draws attention to the parish's endeavors.
``These old buildings are great launching pads for humanitarian efforts,'' Mr. Pike says. ``They serve a genuine social role.''