The Atlantic Cities explores the question of what can be done with historic church buildings:
When it comes to the holy trinity of art, architecture, and religion, few buildings are more significant than the 1898 Methodist Church in Norwalk, Connecticut. Anchoring a main street, the Romanesque-style church features a stained-glass rose window designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany himself. The founders of American Methodism preached there. Given its prominence and pedigree, should the church’s governing body be allowed to sell the building for development, as it is currently trying to do?
The U.S. Constitution, according to many observers, says yes, but historic preservationists beg to differ. Who decides?
…these old churches are beloved landmarks, whether people worship there or not. Churches are key to a city’s architectural character and its social and religious history, preservationists say. Often, these advocates will stamp a capital L on these landmarks through official historic designation. At the state or local level, such designations can limit what happens to church buildings by preventing significant alterations or demolition.
Such limitations, church leaders say, can pose economic hardships that interfere with their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. A spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, for example, recently characterized the city’s effort to landmark six churches as “extremely offensive.” Federal and state laws, particularly the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act, protect religious groups from some property use restrictions.
But the case law goes both ways. The most famous federal case on the issue, going back two decades, is St. Bartholomew’s Church vs. the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The church, whose sanctuary is a designated landmark, sought to demolish its adjacent community house to build a high-rise office tower, the income from which would support religious activities. “If we don’t have more money,” a church official said at the time, “we won’t be able to preserve the very building that the preservationists are concerned about: the church sanctuary.” The U.S. Court of Appeals ultimately upheld the landmark.