The preservation of religious structures has been on my mind because I lectured on the subject in Planning class Monday, and also because I met Thursday with Bob Jaeger and Tuomi Forrest of Partners for Sacred Places, a national organization that helps religious congregations fulfill their mission with their buildings, which is to say that they help save religious buildings. And I was thinking about it because I was in Washington Friday and the
Post reported on the landmark designation of the Brutalist Christian Science Church pictured here.
The church was designated over the objections of its owners, something that can’t be done in Chicago thanks to a last-minute, one-sentence amendment duct-taped to the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance 20 years ago. Twenty years ago is when the “church” preservation issue emerged as a national concern and I developed some expertise by virtue of experience in the issue, being involved in local efforts to save Holy Family and St. Mary of the Angels churches (successfully), doing a citywide survey of historic houses of worship in 1990, and serving on task forces and committees that created a local “church” preservation group, Inspired Partnerships, that operated through the 1990s. We also tried to challenge the “church exception” to the landmarks ordinance and failed, not because our 1st and 14th amendment issues were wrong, but because the case was not ripe.
So, I was glad to see the Washington designation, and I happened to have this picture because when I was in Washington a year ago I was struck by the building’s architectural beauty (don’t tell anyone here at SAIC that I used that word, please). That’s how it is supposed to work: you see a building that you think is a landmark and then the city landmarks it.
Now, many religious vigorously oppose landmark designation because of the separation of church and state. Actually, they vigorously oppose landmark designation because of their desire to maximize real estate value, but the “official” reason is separation of church and state. I debated this issue in the letters section of the Wall Street Journal back in 1990 with the pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, the cause of our little ordinance patch. It was proposed for designation, opposed it, and the alderman created an exception for all active houses of worship.
I seem to recall a News of the Weird article where some Catholic diocese opposed landmark designation because they needed to maximize their real estate values in order to pay legal judgements and damages against pedophile priests. Did you see that?
Anyway, one of the things I like to remind my students about separation of church and state is WHAT THE CONSTITUTION ACTUALLY SAYS, which is actually in the Bill of Rights, so I suppose if you are a big Federalist (strict constructionist) you can whine about how the Bill of Rights was itself tacked on, but I would counter that a lot of us have gotten used to these ideas about free speech and press, peacable assembly, fair trials and even that old chestnut equality. In fact, it is the very first amendment that gives us a free press and free speech and the right to assemble and complain to the government AND… what we call separation of church and state. But that’s not what it says, it says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” It says two things: 1. Government can’t create a religion (the establishment clause) and 2. Government can’t prevent you from practicing your religion (free exercise clause).
The funny thing is, our big argument against allowing churches to get out of landmark designation is the establishment clause itself! Because if the government says every kind of building except a house of worship can be landmarked – what is that action but an establishment, a government sanction of religion?
Besides, all these religions are tax-exempt, which I would even construe as an establishment, although to be fair certain religions are more economically sound than others. Which is probably why the Christian Scientists in Washington are complaining – they are a diminishing denomination and need their value more than megabuck churches. Still, I have no crocodile tears for building owners who got a free pass on property taxes for generations and then whine because they can’t all of a sudden become real estate developers.