At first glance, the continuing clash between the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, and Washington’s Historic Preservation Review Board looks like dozens of others that have roiled American cities. A declining congregation considers demolishing its expensive-to-maintain church, only to be opposed by local preservationists, who argue that the building should be made a landmark.
The actions taken are the familiar ones. The congregation, which bitterly opposed landmark designation in December 2007, filed a federal lawsuit this August arguing that the designation violated its First Amendment rights by restraining its ability to practice religion freely. The District of Columbia responded by asking the court to dismiss the complaint on technical grounds, but urging the court to wait until the mayor’s agent — the chairman of the office of planning, which oversees the review board — makes a decision. The mayor’s agent has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday. If her decision goes against the District — which seems unlikely — all will be settled. Otherwise, both parties will return to federal court.
But this case is more outrageous than the norm, given the structure in question. Most such controversies swirl around church properties of a certain age, as when, in 1981, St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue in New York sought, in vain, to demolish its lovely community house in order to build a modernist tower alongside its renowned Byzantine church, constructed in 1916.
The Third Church’s building, by contrast, is relatively new — indeed, too new to be designated historic under federal law.