Church Sues to Undo Landmark Status

The auditorium of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, in Washington, D.C.
The auditorium of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, in Washington, D.C. (Sindya N. Bhanoo -- The Washington Post)
By Sindya N. Bhanoo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008

Attorneys for a downtown church filed a federal lawsuit yesterday, saying the city violated the Constitution when it protected the building from demolition by granting it landmark status.

The Third Church of Christ, Scientist, at 16th and I streets NW, was designated a historic landmark in December, which means structural changes must go through the city's Historic Preservation Review Board.

Church members say the massive concrete structure is bunker-like and unwelcoming, and they want to raze it so they can build a new one.

"The massive windowless walls, with no windows or doors on the street, and a door only visible from one of the four directions approaching the church, is not us," said Darrow Kirkpatrick, a senior member of the congregation.

In a suit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, the church says the landmark designation violates the First Amendment by limiting its ability to freely practice religion.

The church contends that the land designation also violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which "prohibits zoning and landmarking laws that substantially burden the religious exercise of churches or other religious assemblies."

The preservation board ruled that the building, constructed in 1968, is an example of modern Brutalist architecture. Brutalism is defined by large blocks of poured concrete and sharp angles. The church was designed by Araldo Cossutta, who worked with renowned architect I.M. Pei's firm.

Worshipers say it is difficult and expensive to maintain a 400-seat sanctuary that usually draws 40 to 60 people on Sunday. In addition to prohibitively high heating and cooling costs, Kirkpatrick said, it costs almost $8,000 just to change light bulbs because scaffolding has to be built.

There are only two windows in the church's auditorium, and sunlight through one blinds the church organist three months out of the year. And the concrete is ugly, Kirkpatrick said.

"It's a question of whether the building is more important than the people worshiping inside," said Eric C. Rassbach, an attorney representing the church through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm.

Leaders from local religious institutions have submitted letters to the city council in support of the church.

"Many people don't understand that a church is not just a house of worship," said Lynn Bergfalk, senior pastor at Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church. "We need the resources for activity and ministry work during the week."

The city has 30 days to respond to the suit. Peter Nickles, the District's acting attorney general, could not be reached to comment.

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