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Church sues District over landmark

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

The Third Church of Christ, Scientist, is taking on the District government in a legal dispute that church members say pits historic preservation of buildings against religious freedom.

The church wants to replace its 37-year-old building at 900 16th St. NW with a new one that has less of a bunkerlike appearance and is easier to maintain.

But the District's Historic Preservation Office is trying to block demolition permits, saying the architecture of the building makes it a historic landmark that must not be destroyed.

Attorneys for the church filed a lawsuit Thursday in federal court based on the unusual reasoning that interference with the church's reconstruction plans trample's its members' First Amendment rights to freedom of religion.

Normally, property owners challenge historic preservation requirements by saying they lack the money or they disagree with facts leading to the landmark designation.

In the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, case, the historic landmark designation interferes with the church's religious pursuits "without a compelling governmental interest," says the church's lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The church is gaining support from religious denominations across the Washington area led by the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. Leaders of at least a half dozen other denominations attended the press conference in front of the church Thursday to show their support.

"This is a battle between people who revere architecture and people who worship God," said Mike Silverstein, commissioner of the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission, which represents downtown residents.

Church members say the current building does not have enough windows and doors to make it inviting to the surrounding community. A lack of contemporary insulation and ventilation produces enormous heating and cooling bills, according to church leaders.

They also said replacing some lightbulbs high in the ceiling requires building a scaffold each time, again creating unnecessary costs.

"It's become an obstacle to fulfilling our mission," said Melanie D'Evelyn, a Sunday school teacher at the church.

The church is next door to the Christian Science Monitor newspaper building.

Architects describe the building's style as "Brutalist," referring to an architectural fashion from the 1950s through the 1970s that included block-shaped structures with sharp angles, most commonly made with concrete.

The Brutalist style forms the basis of the historic landmark designation the Historic Preservation Office gave the church in December 2007.

The D.C. Historic Preservation Office defended the designation in a statement Thursday.

"While of relatively recent construction, the Third Church of Christ, Scientist/Christian Science Monitor building complex is a striking composition of importance to Washington as one of the few examples of Brutalism as a style and as characterized by a particular construction method," the Historic Preservation Office said. "Third Church is a rare Modernist church in the city and the complex possesses amazingly high integrity, down to the original carpeting and seat upholstery in the church auditorium."

The church's supporters say the Historic Preservation Office's dispute with the church is an example of government out of control.

"The Historical Preservation Office of D.C. government has frankly lost its way," said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a community service group representing 44 church congregations in the Washington area. "This is a case by far of overreaching and overzealousness."

Washington area religious leaders normally support historic preservation, he said. Some of their churches date to the founding of the United States, provided housing for the earliest immigrants and links along the pre-Civil War underground railroad for escaped slaves, all of which contributed to their significance as historic landmarks.

"That's not the case here," Mr. Lynch said. "This is a 37-year-old building with very little historical significance or activity."

Rather than maintain its historic landmark designation, "The mayor needs to clean house at the Historic Preservation Office," Mr. Lynch said.

Attorneys for the church acknowledge they have taken on a big challenge by arguing religious freedom is the key issue in the dispute.

"These cases can take many years to defend and millions of dollars to resolve," said Roman P. Storzer, a Washington attorney.