Sunday, January 24, 2010

What becomes of a “house of God” after God has left? –A Burgeoning Church-State Debate

Disputes over church property within the United States judicial system date back to the 19th century with Watson v. Jones (1871). Traditionally, these disputes have transpired between members of one denomination or another. However, recent disputes over church properties in Ohio and Massachusetts are set to spark a new conversation in the debate over church-state separation.

A recent article posted by the Religious News Service (here) describes the legal battle between the Catholic Church and the cities of Cleveland, OH and Springfield, MA over the designation of shuttered (closed) churches as historic landmarks. While instances of churches and congregations seeking landmark status for church properties are a fairly common occurrence (for example see: West Park Presbyterian Church in NYC), the disputes in Cleveland and Springfield are unique because, in these cases, the local Catholic dioceses are seeking to block the landmark status on the grounds of the first amendment, claiming if the Catholic Church is not permitted to choose in what ways the shuttered churches will be used in the future, then their rights to free exercise will be violated.

These cases evoke many interesting legal questions concerning the role government can play in religious matters. If a church building is no longer used for religious practices, does it remain a religious structure? And, if so, does the maintenance of such a building by a city government violate the establishment clause? The answers to these questions could have a major impact not only for the cases in Cleveland and Springfield, but also for cases like the West Park Presbyterian Church in New York.

Does the city government’s intent of “preserving the historic character of neighborhoods” outweigh the Church’s right to control church property? Tied to this question is the notion that churches, particularly old churches, while being privately owned, are at the same time public buildings because of their aesthetic and architectural value, as well as, the notion that a community has a right to preserve the appearance of its neighborhood. It is questionable whether either of these notions can be legally substantiated.

A final question which directly concerns the 1st amendment is whether the freedom of Catholics to practice their religion is affected if the diocese is not able to control church property. Clearly the diocese’s power is limited by the landmark designation. The diocese loses the ability to dictate the sale and use of the building, but it is unclear if that places a direct burden of the free exercise of the individual Catholic person’s religion. Since the buildings are no longer used for religious service, it seems that loss of control over the buildings would be inconsequential for religious practice.

Whatever answers the court finds for these and similar questions raised by these cases, one can be sure that they will shape future cases involving church property. Furthermore, they will have significant impact on American understanding of church-state separation and the interpretation of the religion clauses.


Kerry S said...

I think this is a very interesting article. I think that the First Amendment should not be invoked here by the dioceses because the churches that they are trying to protect are shuttered and no longer used as places of worship. I think if these shuttered churches are no longer being used for services then their freedom of religion is not being tested. Also, I think that if the diocese decides to make the churches into a historical landmark, they should have to prove the historical significance of the beuilding. Furthermore, once it is a landmark, I see it as "property" of the state and the Catholic Church should no longer have the final say over how the building is used in the future.

Scottie said...
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Jonathan S. said...

My my, this article rings with resounding irony. The Catholic Church has willingly closed a number of its churches due to legitimate external forces, and while this decision is a proper one, especially considering these tough economic times, they have now decided that their property is better left to the rats and mice than to other humans who happen to be motivated by politics and architecture rather than religion. But why? Is this an example of ‘If we can’t have it, you can’t either” writ large? And what of precedent? The Constitution allows for this situation outside of the First Amendment; rather, we must look to the Fifth: “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” To me, this is not a case of infringing on religious rights (the right to worship having been already waived in the face of economic hardship), but rather it is a matter or property.