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California and the West

Churches' Sway Over Buildings Is Upheld

Ruling: U.S. Supreme Court rejects challenge to their exemption from cities' preservation decisions.


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday turned away a religious-preference challenge to a California law that exempts churches from local landmark preservation laws.

The court's action means that church leaders in California, not city officials or preservationists, will determine the fate of historic cathedrals.

Across the nation, more than 2,000 cities have preservation ordinances that allow them to protect buildings or sites that have special historical or architectural importance.

But there have been recurring disputes with religious leaders over church buildings and cathedrals. In some instances, church leaders have said they can no longer afford to maintain old churches with dwindling attendance. If the buildings can be razed, they can sell the land to developers.

In San Francisco, preservationists reacted harshly when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese announced plans to close nine parish churches. Before they could act to have the buildings declared historic landmarks, the state Legislature moved to exempt churches from the city's historic preservation ordinance.

These local laws "shall not apply to noncommercial property owned by any association or corporation that is religiously affiliated," the 1994 state law said.

A Bay Area preservation group and San Francisco city attorneys challenged the state law as unconstitutional. They said it violated the U.S. Constitution's ban on laws "respecting an establishment of religion" and the state Constitution's ban on preferences for religion.

In December, the state Supreme Court rejected both claims, but by a narrow 4-3 vote. "These exemptions simply free the owners to use the property as they would have done had the property not been designated a historic landmark," wrote state Justice Marvin Baxter.

Several preservation groups, including the Los Angeles Conservancy, joined San Francisco city attorneys in an appeal to the high court. They argued that the state measure goes too far and "gives religious authorities the unilateral power to veto" preservation efforts.

But without comment, the U.S. justices dismissed the appeal (East Bay Asian Local Development Corp. vs. California, 00-1374).

Over the past decade, the justices have struggled over whether religion deserves a special legal status. The 1st Amendment protects "the free exercise of religion" and forbids "the establishment of religion" by the government.

In 1990, the court ruled that religious claims are not entitled to a special exemption in the law, despite the "free exercise" provision. Congress tried to overturn that ruling, but the court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1997.

But in the California case decided Monday, the state had made the special exception for religion. And in this instance, the justices refused to overturn it as an "establishment" of religion.

Meanwhile, the court delayed again a decision on the dispute between the Major League Baseball Players Assn. and former Los Angeles Dodger Steve Garvey.

After the 1985 season, Garvey says, the San Diego Padres offered him a two-year extension of his contract to carry through 1988 and 1989 at $1.45 million per year. But the offer was later withdrawn, and Garvey blamed collusion among club owners.

In 1990, an arbitrator agreed that the club owners had conspired to hold down players' salaries, and they were required to create a $280-million fund to pay the damage claims.

But the same arbitrator later ruled that Garvey was not entitled to any of the money. He sued and won a ruling from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that declared the arbitrator's decision "irrational" and ordered the $3-million payment for Garvey.

However, the players association asked the Supreme Court to intervene and to give the arbitrators the final word. The justices have considered the case for several weeks, and on Friday issued an order delaying payments until they can act on the appeal (Major League Players Assn. vs. Garvey, 00-1210).

The court is not scheduled to issue rulings again until May 14.

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