WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court indicated yesterday that historic churches designated as landmarks will have to get government approval to change their buildings, even when they claim that this would intrude on their faith.
In a brief order, the court set aside a state court ruling that had posed a major constitutional threat to the enforcement of landmark preservation laws across the country, when those laws were used against church property.
The Washington state Supreme Court had ruled a year ago that a city violates a church's right to exercise its religion freely when the city designates that church building as a landmark to be preserved, unless city officials approve changes in advance.
In the order issued yesterday, with no dissents noted, the justices told the Washington state court to reconsider its ruling and, when it does, to apply a Supreme Court decision last year declaring that religious organizations must obey "neutral" laws that apply to them along with everyone else, thus not singling out religious groups for discriminatory treatment.
That order by the justices, viewed alone, could have left some doubt about the outcome the justices expected the Washington court to reach when it does reconsider.
But in another, separate action yesterday, the court denied review of a federal appeals court ruling that had relied directly upon the justices' 1990 decision. That court had upheld New York City's landmark preservation law as used against the historic St. Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue in Manhattan.
In the St. Bartholomew's case, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared last September that, under the justices' 1990 decision, it was clear that a neutral landmark law could be enforced directly against a church so long as the ordinance did not interfere directly with that church's religious views. St. Bartholomew's had wanted to replace part of its historic property with a 47-story office tower. It was rejected under the city landmark law.
There has been a boom in enactment of landmark preservation laws in recent years. Such laws were first adopted in Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans in the 1930s. Now every state has such a law, and a spate of new enactments across the country recently has raised to more than 1,700 the number of local jurisdictions with such laws.
The Washington state case involved the Seattle landmark law, used against First Covenant Church. The case was City of Seattle vs. First Covenant Church (No. 90-892). Two New York City cases the justices refused to hear were Committee to Oppose Sale vs. Rector (No. 90-899) and Rector vs. New York City (No. 90-900).