God and Man at Logan Circle: Metropolitan Baptist’s Constitutional Challenge

Real estate and religion are uneasy neighbors in the Logan Circle area, where church-run social-service establishments have been the subject of numerous land-use battles. Few of these conflicts, however, have been fought on such sweeping terms as Metropolitan Baptist Church’s assault on the Greater 14th Street Historic District. The church is arguing in D.C. Superior Court that the inclusion in the historic district of five church-owned properties “is violative of the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.’’

Metropolitan’s modern church at 1225 R St. NW is not covered by the historic district; at issue are five church-owned, circa-1882 town houses in the 1700 block of 13th Street NW. (The church also owns another house at 1639 13th St.) They were included in the district established by the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) in June 1994. The Logan Circle Citizens Association (LCCA) proposed the district, and both of the area’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, 2-B and 2-F, endorsed it. LCCA has supported HPRB as an intervenor in the case.

Metropolitan, which bought the buildings between 1937 and 1992, wants “to convert these properties to the expanded social services they intend to provide to the community.’’ The historic designation will not prevent this, although it does require that visible alterations to the buildings be approved by HPRB. (Actual demolition of the buildings, though discouraged, is also not absolutely banned by historic status.) The structures’ historic designation, the church argues, will cause “severe’’ delays.

Metropolitan’s challenge is wide-ranging, beginning with the argument that the historic designation violates the First Amendment by imposing “an unreasonable burden on the church’s free exercise of religion.’’ It then contends that HPRB’s procedure was flawed, that the city has no “compelling interest’’ in designating the properties historic, and that if the city does have an interest, the designation is not the “least restrictive means of furthering this interest.’’ It also asserts that because the church’s original structure was built in 1864, before most of the area was developed, it is unconnected to the historic architectural phenomenon the district is designed to preserve. (This claim, which would seem to contend that the town houses are too historic for historic designation, is a curious one; the original church was built before the Logan Circle building boom, but the town houses were erected during that boom, and it’s the town houses that have been designated.)

The church’s suit also relies heavily on the decision made in Western Presbyterian v. the Board of Zoning Adjustment, a controversial ruling that allowed a church to operate a homeless feeding program in Foggy Bottom.

This week, LCCA filed its response to Metropolitan’s suit. As it notes, the Western Presbyterian case is of dubious relevance, since the historic designation does not prevent Metropolitan from continuing its programs. LCCA argues that the church “has failed to demonstrates any ‘actual controversy’ or injury’’ and that “the basis for the injury to the petitioner’s free exercise rights is entirely speculative, depending on future plans and contingencies that have not yet and may never occur.’’ It also argues that the success of Metropolitan’s suit would exempt “an entire class of historically and architecturally significant properties—those owned by religious entities—from the city’s important historic preservation law, without any evidence that the application of those laws will impose specific and substantial burdens on religious freedoms.’’

—Mark Jenkins & Bill Rice

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