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Historic haste / Shelve an unfair break for religious buildings

Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Editorial Page
Monday, February 24, 2003

City Council is expected to vote tomorrow on final approval of legislation that would give churches and other religious structures special treatment when it comes to historic designations. The vote should be no, and council should go back to the drawing board.

The ordinance sponsored by Councilman Bob O’Connor, soon to quit council to take a position in the Rendell administration, is a response to some legitimate frustrations with the historic-designation process on the part of local religious bodies, especially the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

The diocese is upset that churches it has decided to close or demolish, most recently St. Nicholas Church on East Ohio Street, were the subject of historic-designation nominations at the “eleventh hour.” The diocese’s lawyer also has complained about what its lawyer called a “highly discretionary” process that “leaves ample room for misuse” and can force churches to divert resources needed for its ministries to the upkeep of unwanted buildings.

These are serious objections, and in the case of St. Nicholas the Post-Gazette editorialized against historic status for the church. But Councilman O’Connor’s remedy, which received preliminary approval last week by a 5-3 vote, is the wrong approach.

Instead of overhauling the historic-designation process as it applies to all buildings, the O’Connor ordinance gives a free pass to religious structures. If the ordinance becomes law, churches, synagogues and other religious buildings could be nominated for historic status only by their owners.

Under current law, any citizen can nominate a structure for historic designation, which ultimately is granted by a vote of City Council. If a site is designated as historic, it cannot be demolished or externally renovated without the approval of the Historic Review Commission. If the ordinance were adopted, this would still be the case for nonreligious buildings — a preference for religion that could raise First Amendment problems.

The lawyer for the Catholic Diocese suggests that special exemption for religious buildings is grounded in legal precedents protecting “the interest of religious institutions in managing their affairs free from government intrusion.

But churches aren’t the only buildings where constitutional rights are exercised. Under the diocese’s logic, a newspaper building, no matter how distinguished architecturally, could not be nominated by outsiders for historic designation because the designation might force the publisher to shift funds from reporting the news, an activity protected by the First Amendment, to maintaining a “historic” building.

Mr. O’Connor’s intentions are good, but this ordinance is poorly conceived and constitutionally problematic. Moreover, there are other approaches deserving of council’s study.

Before approving the O’Connor bill, council brushed aside an alternative proposal by Councilman Sala Udin that would have avoided the issue of special treatment for churches by preventing residents from nominating any structures for historic designation. (Such nominations could still be made by the mayor, council and the city planning and historic review commissions.) We’re not convinced that the Udin approach is preferable to current law, but at least it doesn’t raise concerns about special breaks for churches.

Bob O’Connor may deserve a going-away present form his councilmanic colleagues, but this isn’t it. The ordinance should not receive final approval.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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