Christian Science Church Fights Landmark Limits

A Christian Science congregation has filed a lawsuit against the Washington, D.C., government for preventing the church from tearing down its own building.

The city declared the 37-year-old Third Church of Christ, Scientist, to be a historic landmark, seeking to preserve the downtown building as an example of the “brutalist” style of architecture. In doing so, the city trampled on the church’s religious freedom, the lawsuit asserts.

The church and city preservationists have debated the building’s merits for years. Church leaders want to construct a new building, while preservationists argue that it  is an important architectural statement.

The church is a massive bunker-like concrete structure with few windows and only one visible door. The structure is expensive to heat, and it costs up to $8,000 a year to change light bulbs because scaffolding has to be built, according to church officials.

“Third Church is a rare Modernist church in the city,” David Maloney, historic preservation officer of D.C., told The New York Times,“and the complex possesses amazingly high integrity (in all respects: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association), down to the original carpeting and seat upholstery in the church auditorium.”

The church’s lawsuit contends the landmark designation violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal measure that “prohibits zoning and landmarking laws that substantially burden the religious exercise of churches or other religious assemblies.”

“We believe this brutalist, unwelcoming, bunkerlike building is not a proper representation of our practice or our theology,” said J. Darrow Kirkpatrick, the church’s former first reader (lay leader). “Without a compelling government interest, our members, not the Historic Preservation Review Board, are in the best position to determine that representation.”