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Preserving History or Violating the First Amendment?

The dispute over Our Lady of Hope church turns on fundamental constitutional questions.

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Friday, May 03, 2013

Next week, a federal judge in Boston will take up the ongoing legal dispute over the fate of Springfield’s former Our Lady of Hope church. But attorneys for the Roman Catholic diocese say there’s another crucial matter at stake: the church’s freedom of religious expression.

The diocese shut down Our Lady of Hope in 2009, as part of a larger plan to close and consolidate parishes across the region in response to dwindling numbers of both parishioners and priests. The decision to close Our Lady of Hope—for a century the heart of Hungry Hill’s Irish-Catholic community—was met with sadness as well as alarm over what might happen to the Italian Renaissance-style stone church built by devoted parishioners. In response to concerns that the building might be sold and knocked down, the City Council quickly passed an ordinance declaring the church a historic district, which means that any alterations to its exterior are subject to approval by the city’s Historical Commission.

And that, the diocese contends, is a direct violation of the Church’s rights to free speech and religious expression. The ordinance, the diocese’s attorneys argue, was politically motivated and pushed through with “unseemly haste” and no regard for the church’s constitutional rights.

The diocese (or, to be precise, the Springfield Bishop, an office that is incorporated as the legal name of the diocese) filed suit against the city within weeks of the creation of the OLOH historic district. This came as no surprise; attorneys from the diocese’s law firm—Springfield’s Egan, Flanagan and Cohen—had attended multiple public meetings on the matter leading up to the City Council vote and also sent letters to individual councilors, warning that the move would violate their client’s constitutional rights.

That argument is at heart of the lawsuit, which charges that the city violated the diocese’s freedoms of speech and of religious expression as well as the federal Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act, which prohibits governments from imposing land use regulations that create a “substantial burden” on the religious expression of individuals or institutions without demonstrating a “compelling governmental interest.”

The diocese had sought declaratory judgment negating the ordinance that created the OLOH historic district. In January of 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor ruled that the ordinance did not violate the diocese’s legal rights. Because the diocese had yet to submit any plans to the Historical Commission for approval, Ponsor noted, it was premature to say that its rights had been violated by any Commission decision. But, he added, “If a plan should be formulated and submitted pursuant to the Ordinance, the response of the Historical Commission may change the constitutional picture significantly and entitle Plaintiff to further judicial consideration.”

The diocese has appealed Ponsor’s ruling and will argue its case before a federal appeals court in Boston next week. In an appeals brief, attorneys Jack Egan and Stephen Spelman noted that the Bishop is obliged, under Church doctrine and canon law, to ensure that when a church is closed, its religiously significant items—such as OLOH’s 65 stained glass windows and numerous crosses, stone friezes and reliefs—are “not desecrated or reduced to sordid use” and to follow a prescribed process for their removal, reuse and storage. In addition, the lawyers wrote, if the diocese sells or leases a former church building, that agreement must include a provision that the building never be used for purposes at odds with church teachings, as determined by the Bishop.

The restrictions created by the historic district, the lawyers said, prevent the Bishop from fulfilling those obligations; indeed, if the diocese were to make changes to OLOH’s exterior without permission, it could face criminal penalties. In addition, they wrote, the restrictions will make it hard for the diocese to get fair market value for the church should it decide to sell it.

In response, the city’s attorneys, in their own brief, echoed a key point of Ponsor’s ruling: the diocese has yet to apply to the Historical Commission for permission to alter the building, so there’s no way of knowing if its plans would even be subject to any restrictions.

The OLOH district, wrote attorneys Ed Pikula and Anthony Wilson, was created specifically to prevent the church from being demolished, as another closed city church, St. Joseph’s, had been after it was sold to developers. “It is possible that Plaintiff’s plan, once crafted and publicly disclosed, will be entirely satisfactory to the Springfield Historic Commission,” they noted.

But the diocese’s attorneys are not optimistic on that point. They argue that the ordinance was pushed through in a climate of hostility that would make it pointless for them expect a fair hearing before the Commission. “(T)he very purpose for the creation of the Ordinance, enacted after a vociferous group of former parishioners brought pressure on local political leaders, was to prevent changes to the exterior of the Church, in order to keep the (Bishop) from selling or demolishing it,” the wrote. “It would be absolutely futile for the (Bishop) to apply for an exemption in the face of such pervasive and deep-seated government hostility.”

In addition, the attorneys say, even if the Historical Commission were to approve every change proposed by the Bishop, the mere fact that it has the power to approve or reject changes to the church is an inappropriate intrusion on the Bishop’s right to religious expression without government interference.

The outcome of the Springfield case could have implications for the city of Holyoke as well. There a move is underway to include the closed Mater Dolorosa church in a proposed Polish Heritage Historic District. (See “Heritage and the Diocese,” March 19, 2003, www.valleyadvocate.com.) If that effort is successful, it’s expected that the diocese will pursue similar legal action there.

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