New York OCA Cathedral’s fight for religious freedom

If you’ve read the last two issues of our SOCHA newsletter, you know that Holy Protection OCA Cathedral in New York City is in the middle of a fight with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). Here’s how I described the situation in the most recent newsletter:

In last month’s newsletter, I mentioned the plight of Holy Protection OCA Cathedral in New York City. The cathedral community is in a fight with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is trying to have the cathedral declared a historic landmark against the wishes of the cathedral itself and its diocesan bishop. If the Commission is successful, the cathedral will be forced to get government approval for any changes to the church exterior. They may also be forced to make “improvements” deemed appropriate by the city. This is an unacceptable infringement on the religious freedom of the cathedral community in the name of “historic preservation.” As I said last month, I’m (obviously) a huge supporter of preserving history, but we don’t need the government telling us how to do it. Here is an update from Fr. Christopher Calin, dean of the cathedral: “The Community Board #3 voted 32 to 9 to endorse the Landmark District which would include our Cathedral and other houses of worship in the EV [East Village]. We are currently working with a Local Faith Communities group to find alternatives to the forced landmarking of our buildings and have a meeting scheduled for 9/12 with the Commissioner of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) Tierney. There is support to NOT designate religious institutions as individual landmarks, but the well-funded and staffed preservationists are lobbying the LPC and city council members very hard.” We at SOCHA strongly and officially support the cathedral in its efforts to resist the coerced landmarking. In a future article, we’ll let you know how you can help.

As I indicated, Bishop Michael Dahulich has already voiced his disapproval of the forced designation of his own cathedral. In a letter to the chairman of Community Board 3, Bishop Michael wrote,

We are not against preservation or even an historic district designation for the East Village, but the forced individual landmark status of our cathedral and other houses of worship and will place time-consuming and costly demands on parishes to make application and receive permission from the Landmarks Preservation Commission every time the parishioners need to change a window, put in an air conditioner, paint a gate, install a new sign, or replace doors, roofs or steps.

But  it’s actually even worse than that. The cathedral was originally a Protestant church. Fr. Christopher Calin told me that back when the then-Russian Metropolia acquired the building in the 1940s, it drew up plans for a complete redesign of the exterior. The plan called for a much more traditional Orthodox appearance, with cupolas and so forth. The plans have never been enacted, in part because of funding issues, but there’s still hope that the community will eventually raise the money for it. If the landmark designation is imposed, though, the cathedral would have to get government approval of the design before they could move forward. As I understand the process, that would involve a public hearing at which any citizen could come in and argue against the cathedral’s plans. So you could have the City of New York blocking the addition of Orthodox architectural elements (such as domes and icons) because they would alter the historic (Protestant) exterior of the building. In that case, “preserving history” would amount to preserving Protestant architecture and suppressing the Orthodox owners’ right to freely exercise their religion via Orthodox architectural expression.

In Orthodoxy, and indeed in nearly all religions, religious architecture is a religious matter. Domes, icons, crosses, the shape of the building; it’s impossible to separate these elements from our Orthodox faith itself. When I attended St. George Cathedral in Wichita, they added gorgeous mosaics to the exterior of the building. Had the cathedral been a historic landmark, the church would have needed government approval for those icons — and if the government thought that the icons unacceptably changed the original look of the church, then the church would have been prohibited from adding them. This is a blatant violation of religious freedom.

But it goes beyond the simple fact that church architecture is intrinsically religious. Take, for instance, the addition of an air conditioner. Should the church be prevented from adding the air conditioner of its choice, simply because it happens to be in an old building? Should it be forced to make a case to the government, and undergo a public hearing, simply to replace a broken window? This is what Historic Preservation does: it puts decision-making power over churches into the hands of government bureaucrats.

To those who say that one’s choice of air conditioning unit is not really an ecclesiastical matter, I ask this: who gets to decide whether an issue is ecclesiastical or not? Who is qualified to make that decision? As I’ve argued in the past, the question of whether something is ecclesiastical is, itself, ecclesiastical. And we absolutely, constitutionally, cannot have the civil government making those decisions.

Forced preservation has another problem: it violates the authority of the bishop. Ultimately, the proper authority over Holy Protection Cathedral is the OCA Bishop of New York, Michael Dahulich. Above him is the Holy Synod of the OCA. As long as the church architecture doesn’t present a safety problem, how on earth can the civil government justify usurping the bishop’s authority and dictating to a church what design elements are acceptable and what are not?

We’re not talking about the type of government justifications that most people accept — things like fire code, building code, etc. The government’s interest isn’t safety — it’s the nebulous concept of “history.” Why, exactly, is the City of New York the proper judge of what constitutes proper preservation of Orthodox Church history? As an Orthodox Christian historian, I would argue that the work of church history, including its preservation, is an inherently religious exercise. To compartmentalize it, and to divorce it from the life of the church, is contrary to Orthodoxy. But that is what the historic preservationists of New York are attempting to do: they’re attempting to place the final decision over church architectural design into the hands of the civil government. That, my friends, is both unconstitutional and just plain wrong.

And if you think this is just a minor issue for one community, think again. How old is your church? If it’s more than, say, 50 or 70 years old, it’s at risk of the same problem. We all have an interest in preserving history, but we have a greater interest in preserving religious freedom. We have an interest in preserving our freedom to preserve our religious history as we, as Orthodox, see fit. We do not need the government to tell us how to preserve our history, against our will. That does violence to the First Amendment and, indeed, to the actual preservation of history itself.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.

2 thoughts on “New York OCA Cathedral’s fight for religious freedom

  1. I actually experienced this same situation about ten or twelve years ago in my home parish in St. Louis (St. Nicholas, GOA). I was a theology professor at Saint Louis University at the time. I attended the meeting of the city’s landmark commission, armed with a slide show presentation of traditional Orthodox architecture and iconography, and made it clear that landmark status would inhibit the parish’s ability to alter either the architecture or the interior iconography to make it more traditional (the exterior is a not-very-good Romanesque basilica and the interior is decorated with primarily Western European-style iconography). We also had a letter from our diocesan bishop in Chicago objecting to the landmark designation on the same grounds (I had written him about it ahead of time). The commission voted against landmark designation for the church.

    • Valerie! It’s great to hear from you! i truly appreciate you weighing in on this matter. People just don’t always realize what Orthodoxy’s liturgically-influenced architecture truly is all about. Then again, how many Americans even know there is Orthodox Christianity, right?

      Thank you for your words of support and for your efforts in the past. The church is indebted to all sorts of people like you willing to remind others kindly that sometimes good intentions (historic preservation) comes at too high a cost (regulatory interference with Orthodox Christianity).

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