Tuesday, July 23, 2013

1st Circuit: Creating Church As Historic District Did Not Unduly Burden Free Exercise

In Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield v. City of Springfield, (1st Cir., July 22, 2013), the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed challenges by the Catholic Bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts to the city's creation of an historic district to protect the Italian Renaissance style Our Lady of Hope Church.  The District was created at the urging of parishioners after the Bishop announced the closing of the Church. The Court held that because the Bishop has taken no further steps to deconsecrate, sell or lease the Church, and has not sought permission from the Springfield Historical Commission to alter the Church's exterior, various of the claims "lack the requisite concreteness to warrant resolution of whether hypothetical outcomes transgress RLUIPA or either the federal or state constitutions." However, plaintiff was permitted to proceed on the claim that the mere enactment of the ordinance imposed delay, uncertainty and expense on its planning for use of the building. The Court concluded, however, that the requirement to submit future plans to the Springfield Historical Commission for approval does not violate RLUIPA's substantial burden or equal terms provisions, nor does it violate the free exercise clause:
there is no evidence that suppression of Catholic religious practices was the object of the Ordinance. The text of the Ordinance requires only that RCB file an application with the SHC before making any changes to the exterior of the Church. The language of the Ordinance does not require RCB to perform or forego any particular practice, and it does not prohibit deconsecration or even closing of the Church outright. While the circumstances of the Ordinance's enactment reveal that the Ordinance was motivated at least in part by a desire to prevent demolition of the Church -- a possible outcome of RCB's religious decisionmaking process -- there is no evidence that this goal was rooted in "animosity to religion or distrust of its practices." 

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