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'Historic' building versus religious rights

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Not only is the building too costly to maintain (i.e., requiring $8,000 in scaffolding to change light bulbs), the church says, but it is also not representative of its theology. And the church is being prevented from worshiping as it wants to.

As part of the historic preservation process before the case proceeds in court, District of Columbia city planner Harriet Tregoning is considering whether the refusal to allow demolition could result in "unreasonable economic hardship" for the church. If Ms. Tregoning finds that to be the case, she could decide as soon as late January to allow the demolition. If not, the case will move to the courts.

Although the 37-year-old building is too new to be designated historic in most jurisdictions (50 years is the norm), a group of local architects and preservationists sought the landmark status starting in 1991. They have offered to help the church consider various uses for the building to help pay for the expensive maintenance, from including gallery space to adding an office building above it.

"We have offered to meet with them on numerous occasions and are more than willing to entertain opportunities for the site," says Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League.

The church sits on property owned by ICG Properties, which proposes including a smaller church on the land along with an office building. The fortresslike design has been controversial from the start, among architects and the public. A neighborhood commission voted unanimously to support the church's desire to rebuild.

The suit to overturn the landmark decision is one of the first under RLUIPA dealing with historic preservation.

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