Jun 15, 2003

Church Architecture and the Supreme Court

Online Edition

– Vol. IX, No. 4: June 2003


Church Architecture and the Supreme Court

Attempting to use secular law to govern church renovations may be perilous 

by James Hitchcock

From time to time Catholics opposed to the radical "renovation" of their churches appeal to the civil authorities on the grounds that a particular church is a historic landmark and is thereby protected by law from modernization. Those who make such appeals have a mixed record of success. But one such case went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, with ambiguous results. The case, decided in 1997, was called City of Boerne v. Flores, the defendant being Archbishop Patrick Flores of San Antonio.

St. Peter’s Church in Boerne, Texas was built in 1923. Finding it too small for its growing congregation, its pastor in 1991 decided to build an almost entirely new structure, preserving only a small part of the old. St. Peter’s, however, was part of what had been designated a "historic district" and, in response to the pleas of some parishioners, the city council decreed that the rebuilding could not take place.

Meanwhile the U.S. Congress had enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, predicated on the belief that the Supreme Court had been restricting religious liberty in its recent decisions, most notably one that found that American Indians had no constitutional right to use the illegal drug peyote in their religious rituals. The RFRA provided that religious believers were entitled to exemptions from laws that might in theory apply equally to everyone. Archbishop Flores challenged the action of the city council under the terms of the RFRA, and in response the city council claimed that the RFRA was itself unconstitutional.

Eventually the Supreme Court invalidated the RFRA, primarily on the grounds that Congress had usurped the power of the courts in undertaking to define the extent of religious liberty. (It is rare for the Supreme Court to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional.) The Court saw the RFRA as a direct challenge to its own authority, as the history of the act shows that in fact it was intended to be.

Beyond this was the constitutional issue of whether a violation of religious freedom must be deliberate or whether it can occur when a religious group is merely held to the same restrictions binding on other citizens. For about fifty years after 1940, the Court held the latter position. During the 1990s, however, it seemed to return to the older theory. Critics of the older position note that, for example, it would not recognize a constitutional right to use sacramental wine in a legal jurisdiction where alcohol was prohibited. (There was such an exemption during Prohibition [1919-33], but the issue never came before the Supreme Court.)

After the Boerne decision the local dispute was settled by plans for an enlarged church which kept a large part of the old building. Thus, as is often the case with constitutional issues, the significance of the case lay not so much in the specific disputed question as in the larger theoretical implications – the invalidation of the RFRA and the apparent ruling by the Court that religious believers are entitled to no exemptions from laws binding on the citizens in general. (The decision did not say that such exemptions may not be granted.) The case left open the constitutional question of whether historic-landmark designations apply to churches, and there will probably be more litigation in the future.

Catholics who deplore the often wanton remodeling of venerable churches are understandably tempted to appeal to the civil government under historic-preservation laws, but such appeals may be short-sighted. Decades from now the same laws might be used to prevent the sacralization of the many "supermarket" churches that now disfigure the suburban landscape, on the grounds that such buildings are exquisite examples of mid-twentieth-century functionalist American architecture. (For example, installing statues might be deemed a violation of the building’s authentic modernist spirit.)

In the end it is quite dangerous to allow the secular courts to decide such things as the style of altars, or the placement of tabernacles, even when court decisions might effectively support authentic Catholic belief and practice.


James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, is the author of a two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion, published by Princeton University Press.



James F. Hitchcock