Neighbors Rally to Save Historic Church Windows – Historic Preservation Runs Up Against Religious Freedom

Epworth Church, 7th and A Streets, NE

Neighbors Rally to Save Historic Church Windows – Historic Preservation Runs Up Against Religious Freedom

by Larry Janezich

Last October, when the World Mission Society Church of God bought the historic Epworth Episcopal Church South, located at 700 A Street NE, it was reasonable to assume the transition from one place of worship to another would be routine.  That notion ended earlier this spring when neighbors noticed that several of the building’s stained glass windows had been removed, despite the historic nature of the those windows, and apparently without first consulting ANC6C or the Historic Preservation Office (HPO).

Complaints to the HPO resulted in an investigation that confirmed that this was indeed the case, and the office ordered the new owners to restore the windows to their original locations.

The owners complied but, according to HPO, several panes of stained glass were broken in the process and one of the largest was re-installed precariously without its wooden frame.

Built in 1895 and dedicated in 1896, Epworth Episcopal Church originally had stained glass windows featuring simple floral designs.  The church suffered extensive damage in a 1919 fire, and apparently many of the current windows date to a 1921 restoration.

The new owners of the church, the World Mission Society Church of God, have filed an application with the HPO to remove the windows and replace them with clear glass – according to the HPO staff report – out of “concerns related to freedom of religion, lead safety, and energy efficiency.”

The HPO staff report recommends the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) advise the Mayor’s Agent – who will decide the issue if an adverse HPRB decision is appealed – that the application “for replacement of the existing stained glass windows with clear glass is not consistent with the purposes of the preservation law or with the window standards included in the preservation regulations.”  ANC6C and the Capitol Hill Restoration Society have likewise put their opposition on the record.

Even if the Mayor’s Agent were to agree with a denial by HPRB of the permit, the new owners could appeal to the federal courts, who would decide if the First Amendment should yield to historic preservation law.   The fact that the World Society has hired a lawyer for the opening stages of the permit process indicates that they are prepared to do take their case to other venues.

Wikipedia notes that the World Mission Society Church of God was founded by Ahn Sahng-hong in 1964 and maintains its headquarters in Korea.  The church claims 1.45 million members worldwide and has come under criticism for deviating from mainstream Christian beliefs.  It is active in many volunteer services and welfare activities throughout the world.

HPRB has put the case on its agenda for its meeting on Thursday, March 22, at 441 4th Street, NW, Room 220 South.  The meeting starts at 9:00am.


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11 responses to “Neighbors Rally to Save Historic Church Windows – Historic Preservation Runs Up Against Religious Freedom

  1. Vernon

    I not sure I understand the reason for the Wikipedia reference regarding the new church owners’ beliefs.There are many other Christian religions that deviate from the “mainstream.” Inclusion of this reference detracts from the well presented and objective reporting of the rest of the article.

    For the record, I had never heard of the World Mission Society of God before reading this.

  2. I’m a devout Christian but I don’t support their view that this is a “First Amendment” issue. Otherwise what’s to stop them (or any other religiously based organization) from changing the complete character of their buildings? If they win their case, are they allowed to demolish the building and start over? Perhaps building some type of Frank Gehry inspired monstrocity (no offense to him, I like some of his stuff but obviously it wouldn’t fit the neighborhood character) because they’re immune from these types of restrictions? Slippery slope …

  3. It’s not a slippery slope, it’s law – both the 1st Amendment and RLUIPA:

    1. General rule. No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government can demonstrate that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly or institution
    a) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
    b) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

    In the event of legal challenges, RLUIPA will certainly come up.

  4. Bobbi Krengel

    Both comments are true–it is a slippery slope and RLUIPA will come up.
    Historic preservation laws are deemed to be neutral laws of general applicability. The question is whether they would impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise.
    If historic preservation laws were inherently unconstitutional they would have been overturned long ago.
    To fail to protect this building would be to undermine the very heart of historic preservation.

    When we create, maintain and choose to live in historic districts, we take on a burden for the public good, but a burden nevertheless, and we trust that that burden is shared fairly and equally by all, and that no one will be exempted for reasons of self-interest.

    To reward a party who either failed to conduct due diligence or whose sense of entitlement encouraged them to willfully disregard preservation law, would insult all the sacrifices of all who seek to support preservation by bearing that burden.

    And, in addition to those who willingly bear this burden, there are also other people who would also be aggrieved if the owners’ application were approved: all those other prospective buyers who dutifully and respectfully declined the opportunity to purchase the church for no other reason than the images in the windows; and the previous owners as well, who very likely would have been able to sell the property faster and for more money had it not been so encumbered by images of specific content which could not legally be removed. Even for a residential project, those windows would have been a deterrent. It would be patently unfair to all those people to reward the one party which did not respect the restrictions by exempting them from the rules that everyone else is expected to abide by.

    While I understand and appreciate the owners’ objection to the windows, it should not overrule preservation laws, as this case is quite simply an example of a ill-informed buying mistake, as common as any other when people fail to practice due diligence, and consequently purchase something that cannot be used for the purpose they had in mind. The rule of law should not be suspended to accommodate for those mistakes which exploratory inquiries would have prevented. The owners retain the option of selling the property they bought by mistake and buying another one, hopefully next time with a little more caution.

    Bobbi Krengel

  5. It’s a “substantial burden” for them to leave the building the way they found it? Would be interested to see how they would show that.

  6. Stuart Denyer

    Given that we’re discussing historic preservation, it might be more correct to refer to it as being built by the “Methodist Episcopal Church, South” (a branch of the Methodist church that split over the slavery issue). As far as I know, Epworth church is not related to the U.S. Episcopal Church (of the Anglican tradition).

  7. Bill

    To Stuart,

    Epworth (England) is also a Methodist term since it is the birthplace of John and Charles Wesley, founders of Methodism. Many Methodist churches use the name and the Epworth League was the previous name of the United Methodist Youth Fellowship.

    More interesting is that the original church was of the ME Church South which split over slavery as mentioned and the Methodists didn’t get back together again until 1939 (hopefully the current battle over accepting gay folks won’t take as long).

    Apparently the church grew and after the fire, decided to build on the east side of Lincoln Park and renamed themselves Lincoln Park Methodist Church – as a formerly MEC South how ironic that it is primarily a black church now

    In any event I strongly believe the current owners should have known the problems with replacing the windows in an historic district and should follow the law or sell. Their ability to exercise their beliefs should not threaten our right’s and well being as neighbors in an historic district. They appear to be trying to bully the neighbors and the District.

  8. Carole

    Replacing windows on historic property does
    require a DC building permit. Permit
    applications are reviewed by the HPO
    according to these guidelines and regulations
    established by the Historic Preservation
    Review Board (DCMR 10-C, Chapter 23) to
    ensure that the windows are compatible with
    the building’s character. The regulations can
    be found at
    — from The Office of Planning Publication “Window Repair and Replacement: Preservation and Design Guidelines ”

    Isn’t the World Mission Society Church of God illegal in having removed the windows without applying for permits?

  9. Bobbi Krengel

    A building permit dated 1/5/12 was posted that specifically stated in all caps: “NO EXTERIOR DOOR/WINDOW CHANGES AS PER HPO”.
    The stained glass windows disappeared at the end of January.
    The neighbors contacted HPO immediately.
    HPO replied to the neighbors that the windows were removed by a previous congregation.
    Everyone is free to draw their own conclusions on how those events unfolded.
    And whether the owners’ belief systems should be considered relevant to the conversation.
    Bobbi Krengel

  10. Stained glass from 1895? the windows need total restoration
    The lead used in 1895 is good for about 100 years, the stained glass
    is over due for restoration

    This is a 6 figure project. Many inner city churches are faced
    with this dilemma, do you let the windows fall out or do you take
    them out? These are not the kind of windows that are easily sold.
    If they were removed, it wasn’t because they got a lot of money for
    them, it is probably because they were falling out

    It is possible that the windows were removed by the original congregation
    That is easy to determine, go to their current location and ask them
    if they removed the windows

    Many churches have figured out it is easier to take the windows
    out and apologize later than to apply to HPO or similar organizations
    where they are sure to be denied

    This is not an isolated situation, Historic Urban churches all over
    America are faced with with this problem.

    I am in the preservation business, but the reality is that many historic
    churches simply do not have the funds to preserve their stained glass

    It is a true shame the the preservation of historic buildings in America
    didn’t get more stimulus $

    Mark Davidson

  11. Bobbi Krengel

    It might be easy to “go to their current location and ask them if they removed the windows”, but that could not be relied upon to reveal the truth.
    In fact, the windows were in excellent condition, due in part to the protective plexiglass panes installed on the outside, when the new owners took possession of the church in October 2011.
    The new owners have stated that they want them removed as offensive to their religious beliefs.
    We are not privvy to what the owners stated on their building application, but the posted building permit dated 1/5/12 specifically states in all caps: “NO EXTERIOR DOOR/WINDOW CHANGES AS PER HPO”.
    The stained glass windows disappeared at the end of January.
    The neighbors contacted HPO immediately, and were told that the windows were removed by a previous congregation.
    As the windows disappeared approximately three months after the sale of the property, that previous congregation would have had to have done it three months after they no longer owned the property, if they were indeed the party that executed the removal.
    Furthermore, once the neighbors provided photographic evidence refuting the false allegations, HPO instructed the owners to put them back in place, under threat of stop work order, and subsequently, most reappeared, although sadly, many were damaged.
    Careful adherence to truth will serve all well in this matter.
    Thank you very much–
    Bobbi Krengel