Court and Cassock

Last year, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield filed a lawsuit against the City of Springfield that touched on a crucial—and often politically touchy—legal question: where, exactly, is the line between the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religious expression and the government’s right to impose laws on religious institutions?

Indeed, as the judge who issued a ruling in the suit last week wrote, “This lawsuit places the court at the intersection of two important, protected rights: the right of a religious entity to manage its places of worship in accordance with church law without oversight by secular authorities, and the right of the larger community to have a role in the preservation of a beloved landmark that was once a church.”

At issue was the creation, in late 2009, of a historic district at Our Lady of Hope church, in Springfield’s Hungry Hill neighborhood. Earlier that year, the financially struggling diocese had announced plans to close that parish as part of a larger plan to close and consolidate parishes throughout the diocese. The creation of the historic district—which would prevent the building’s owners, current or future, from demolishing the building or making changes to its exterior without the approval of the city’s Historical Commission—was an attempt to address concerns about what would happen to the church building once the parish was closed.

But the move didn’t sit well with the diocese, which balked at the idea of a government entity telling it how it could handle its property. Shortly after the ordinance creating the district was passed, the diocese sued to have it declared invalid. In the lawsuit, the diocese argued that the ordinance violated its rights under the U.S. and Massachusetts constitutions, resulting in “the deprivation of [the Diocese’s] rights of religious freedom, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of assembly, due process and equal protection of the laws.”

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor rejected the diocese’s claims. Much of Ponsor’s ruling turned on the fact that the diocese has yet to submit any plans to the Historical Commission for approval, and therefore can’t make the case that it’s been treated unfairly by any Commission decision.

But, the ruling suggests, the battle over the future of Our Lady of Hope might not be over yet. In a bit of foreshadowing, Ponsor opined that, should the diocese file an application with the Historical Commission seeking permission to make changes to the building, it seems likely that it would qualify for an exemption from the Commission rules. Indeed, Ponsor wrote, should the diocese submit such a plan, it’s the Commission’s response that will decide whether the diocese has basis for legal action.

The news that Our Lady of Hope was to be closed was a hard blow to many of the city’s Catholics, particularly its Irish Catholics. Our Lady of Hope had been the home parish for the Irish immigrants who’d settled in Hungry Hill, and while many of their descendants have since left the neighborhood, the church remained an important symbol for that community.

In the wake of the closure announcement, Our Lady of Hope’s parishioners prepared for a merger with East Springfield’s St. Mary Mother of Hope, in a new parish based at St. Mary’s church. Meanwhile, questions arose about what would happen to the soon-to-be-vacated Our Lady of Hope building, an imposing, Italian Renaissance-style stone structure built in 1925 by its largely working-class immigrant parishioners. At the back of many people’s minds was the sad story of the former St. Joseph’s church at the corner of Howard Street and East Columbus Avenue. The diocese had closed St. Joseph’s parish in 2005, and in 2007 sold the building to a Connecticut developer, which went on to demolish the late-19th century structure.

Eager to spare Our Lady of Hope a similar fate, Hungry Hill neighbors, members of the broader historic preservation community and city leaders (including state representative Sean Curran, whose district includes Hungry Hill) began agitating for the church to be granted historic protection. In late November of 2009, the Historical Commission unanimously voted to recommend that the church property be declared a historic district; a month later—days before Our Lady of Hope’s parishioners celebrated their final mass in the building—the City Council approved, by a vote of 8 to 0, an ordinance creating the district. Mayor Domenic Sarno signed off on the ordinance shortly after.

The city officials did so over the strong objections of the diocese’s attorney, the formidable Jack Egan, a legendary member of the city’s legal community. As councilors prepared to take a vote on the ordinance, they received letters from Egan voicing the diocese’s unhappiness and warning that imposing historic district regulations on churches “runs afoul” of their constitutionally guaranteed right to religious freedom.

“My client cannot concede to government any rights over [its church’s] religious symbols,” Egan wrote. “Can you imagine anything more constitutionally offensive than an agency of city government purporting to exercise any control over whether or not a religion chooses to place or remove crosses from a structure?”

Shortly after the Council vote, Egan filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Diocese in Hampden Superior Court. It was subsequently moved to U.S. District Court.

(At the time, a movement was also underway to create a historic district at Immaculate Conception Church in Indian Orchard, which was also slated for closure under the diocesan plan. The City Council tabled that proposal when the diocese filed suit over the Our Lady of Hope ordinance. And, in the end, the issue was moot; last September, Immaculate Conception parishioners, who appealed their church’s closure, received news from the Rev. Timothy McDonnell, bishop of the Diocese of Springfield, that it would not be closed after all.)


The diocese’s lawsuit asked the court to declare the ordinance creating the Our Lady of Hope historic district invalid, citing 12 counts of violations of state and federal law. They included alleged violations of the diocese’s free expression of religion and of speech, expression and assembly, and of its rights under the Mass. Civil Rights Act. The suit also maintained that the ordinance violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that prohibits governments from applying any land use regulation that “imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including religious assembly and institution” without demonstrating that there’s a compelling government interest in doing so.

Ponsor’s ruling, in essence, found the diocese’s concerns to be premature. The creation of the ordinance creating the historic district does not, in itself, violate the diocese’s rights, the judge found. Rather, any potential violations could only occur when and if the diocese files an application with the Historical Commission seeking to alter the church’s exterior, and only then if the Commission wrongly denies the diocese’s petition.

“The sum and substance of this ruling is this: the Ordinance’s requirement that Plaintiff submit a plan for review violates neither statutory nor constitutional law,” Ponsor wrote. “If a plan should be formulated and submitted pursuant to the Ordinance, the response of the Historical Commission may change the constitutional picture significantly and entitle Plaintiff to further judicial consideration.”

Later in the ruling Ponsor wrote, “It is possible that Plaintiff’s plan, as crafted, will be entirely satisfactory to the Commission; put differently, it is impossible to say that the plan will be deemed unsatisfactory, since the plan does not exist and cannot be reviewed.”

Interestingly, Ponsor predicted that if the diocese does submit a plan to the Historical Commission seeking a certificate of hardship to allow it to remove certain religious symbols from the exterior of the church, it “seems like a very real possibility” that it would be entitled to one. The diocese’s lawsuit, Ponsor found, “makes a strong argument that the inability to deconsecrate the Church would result in a religious hardship.”

A statement from the diocese in response to Ponsor’s ruling expressed its disappointment in the decision to let the Our Lady of Hope ordinance stand. The diocese did find some satisfaction, however, in the portion of the ruling that addressed its interest in removing items with religious significance, including stained glass windows, crosses and stone relief sculptures, as part of the process of deconsecrating the church for non-church use.

Under canon law, materials from closed churches can be put to non-sacred, but not “sordid,” use (the latter being a use that denounces or denigrates the faith). The diocese has established a procedure for dealing with materials from closed churches, which includes moving them to extant parishes, placing them in storage or destroying them. In cases where the building is sold to a new owner, the buyer must agree not to put the materials to “sordid use,” or, alternatively, to let the diocese remove religious materials from the building.

“The Diocese is pleased with the Court’s determination that all exterior religious symbols and stained glass windows are protected forms of religious exercise under the Constitution,” read the diocese statement, issued by spokesman Mark Dupont. “Further, the Court agreed with the Diocese that a hardship was created for the Diocese by the enactment of the Our Lady of Hope Historic District. The Court’s statement … of its opinion, that the granting to the Diocese of a hardship exemption from the ordinance ‘seems like a very real possibility’ is a strong affirmation of the position the Diocese has taken from the outset on this Ordinance.”

Still, the statement concluded, “It is a disappointment the Court chose not to end this matter.”

Not surprisingly, Ralph Slate, chairman of the Springfield Historical Commission, had a different response. “I’m glad that the judge didn’t rule that the simple act of applying for a change in exterior appearance to a property was unconstitutional,” he told the Advocate. “As a member of the SHC, I have absolutely no interest in interfering with religious worship or symbols; I am, however, concerned with secular issues that affect any property owner—like the placement of a handicapped ramp, deciding whether to allow LED signs, or demolishing a building that has great architectural and historical significance.

“I am confident that the SHC knows the difference between religious and secular issues when applications involve churches, particularly since we have managed historical districts with houses of worship within them for over 35 years,” Slate added.

Ben Murphy, president of the non-profit Springfield Preservation Trust and an alternate member of the Springfield Historical Commission, was also pleased with the court’s ruling. “From the start I strongly felt that the creation of the local historic district was not in itself unconstitutional in any way, and this judgment confirmed that belief,” he said. “This is certainly not the end of the story; the historical commission will have to look closely on what can and can’t be controlled with aspects of the exterior of the building.

“At the very least I am happy this significant historic resource will not be drastically altered or demolished without public input,” Murphy continued. “Hopefully a good use can be found for the building.”

Whatever the future holds for the church building, Ponsor ended his ruling with an apparent call for cooperation, or at least comity, between the SHC and the diocese. “It is, one hopes, not beyond possibility that wise and respectful discussions might lead to a resolution of the controversy around Our Lady of Hope Church that will be satisfactory to all concerned,” he wrote.


Author: Maureen Turner

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