HPA No. 12-263 (In re. World Mission Society, Inc.)
- HPA Number: 12-263
- Case Name: In the Matter of: World Mission Society, Inc. (Church of God)
- Location of Property: 700 A Street NE; Square 896, Lot 802
- Date of Decision: June 13, 2013
- Type of Case/Type of Permit Sought: Alteration
- Disposition: Denied
- Subject Matter(s): Windows; Historic District – Contributing Building; First Amendment; Economic Hardship – Generally; Necessary in the Public Interest
Summary of Decision:
The World Mission Society Church of God (the "Applicant") sought a permit to authorize removal of 28 contributing stained-glass windows from its church building, which is located in the Capitol Hill Historic District. The Applicant, which had purchased the Romanesque Revival building in 2011 for $1,250,000, stated that its core beliefs forbid worship in a space depicting shapes in stained glass. The Historic Preservation Office ("HPO") stated that the church building was a "major building" in the historic district and that the windows should be considered "historic windows" and "special windows" under the regulations, thus triggering more stringent requirements for alteration. The Historic Preservation Review Board ("HPRB") unanimously recommended denial of the permit because removing the windows would be inconsistent with the purposes of the Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act (the "Act") and with the implementing regulations for window replacement.
At a hearing before the Mayor's Agent, the Applicant argued that a) the denial of a permit to replace the windows would violate the church's religious freedom as protected by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc, et seq. ("RLUIPA"); b) that denial would impose an unreasonable economic hardship, per D.C. Code 6-1105(f); and, c) that issuance of a permit is necessary in the public interest.
The Mayor's Agent must consider whether enforcing the Act in this case would violate RLUIPA, because failure to do so would "blindly expose the District of Columbia to liability for violating federal rights." While the Mayor's Agent must evaluate cases in accordance with the Act "and nothing more" according to D.C. Preservation League v. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, 646 A.2d 990 (D.C. 1994), RLUIPA remains federal law and still applies to state and local officials.
Since RLUIPA applies, the Mayor's Agent next had to determine whether preventing the Applicant from removing the stained glass windows, even though it would inhibit the congregants' ability to worship in accord with their sincere beliefs, would amount to a "substantial burden."
The Mayor's Agent noted that he could not identify a single reported court decision in which a court held that the denial of a permit under a historic preservation ordinance violated RLUIPA. Without a showing of discriminatory motive, coercion in religious practice, or a congregation's inability to carry out its religious mission in its existing facilities, courts are reluctant to find that neutrally applied preservation ordinances violate the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.
Preserving the windows on the interior of the church building impinges on the worship practices, but the Mayor's Agent noted the windows could also be seen from the exterior and the District had not landmarked the interior of the church building.
Ultimately, the Mayor's Agent faulted the Applicant's utter lack of due diligence and cavalier attitude toward the law. The Applicant had purchased a church building in a historic district but failed to investigate whether it could replace the windows. The Mayor's Agent suggested the situation would be different if the District imposed new preservation restrictions on an existing congregation. This makes this case distinguishable from Third Church of Christ, Scientist, HPA No. 08-141 (May 12, 2009).
Citing 10C D.C.M.R. § 300, the Mayor's Agent stated that reliance upon unexamined assumptions about the content of local preservation laws is per se unreasonable, particularly because prospective purchasers can consult with the HPO on a conceptual review. The cost of selling a church building, even if burdensome, would not violate RLUIPA so long as it does not rise to the level of an unreasonable economic hardship.
Economic Hardship – Generally:
To establish an unreasonable economic hardship, an applicant must show "whether any reasonable economic use exists for the property." 900 G Street Associates v. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, 430 A.2d 1387, 1391 (D.C. 1981). In this case, the Applicant failed to show it could not sell the property for a price approximating what it paid for it.
Historical District – Contributing Building:
The Mayor's Agent rejected the Applicant's arguments that the church was not a contributing building; the Mayor's Agent deferred to the expertise of the HPRB on such a determination.
Necessary in the Public Interest:
The Mayor's Agent rejected the Applicant's argument that removal of the windows was necessary in the public interest because a) removal of character-defining windows is not consistent with the Act; b) religious ministries have general benefits and are not special within the meaning of the Act; and c) the renovations are not "exemplary architecture" that might otherwise justify removal of the windows.
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