Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield v. City of Springfield

Decision Date04 January 2011
Docket NumberC.A. No. 10–cv–30033–MAP.
Citation760 F.Supp.2d 172
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts


Edward J. McDonough, Jr., John J. Egan, Egan, Flanagan & Cohen, P.C., Springfield, MA, for Plaintiff.Edward M. Pikula, Harry P. Carroll, City of Springfield Law Department, Springfield, MA, for Defendants.


PONSOR, District Judge.


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. In this case, Plaintiff Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield challenges, as unenforceable, a local ordinance that might result in the imposition of architectural restrictions on Our Lady of Hope Church in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts. Services terminated at Our Lady of Hope in January 2010, and the ordinance in question, Section 2.46.030(G) of the Revised Ordinances of the City of Springfield (“the Ordinance”), would require Plaintiff to submit to oversight by the Springfield Historical Commission before altering physical aspects of the church building, possibly including sacred religious iconography.

The complaint sets forth twelve counts alleging, inter alia, that the Ordinance violates provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), as well as Plaintiff's right to the free exercise of religion under the United States Constitution and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

Plaintiff has filed a motion for summary judgment on all counts, seeking both declaratory and injunctive relief that would invalidate the Ordinance. Defendants have filed a cross motion for summary judgment, asking the court to declare that Plaintiff is obliged to comply with the Ordinance by filing a timely application with the Springfield Historical Commission before attempting to alter or demolish any exterior architectural features of the church. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 14) will be denied, and Defendants' Cross Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 22) will be allowed.

It is important to emphasize at the outset that a significant portion of the court's rationale is anchored on the doctrine of ripeness. 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. 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.

A. The Parties.

Plaintiff Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield is a corporation sole,1 the legal entity through which the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield (“the Diocese”) operates. The Diocese covers the four western counties of Massachusetts and serves approximately 250,000 Roman Catholics who reside here. Plaintiff names as defendants the City of Springfield (“the City”) and, individually, Mayor Dominic J. Sarno and City Councilors Patrick J. Markey, William T. Foley, Rosemarie Mazza–Moriarty, Timothy J. Rooke, Bruce W. Stebbins, Jose Tosado, Kateri Walsh, Bud L. Williams, and James J. Ferrera, III (“Individual Defendants).

B. Closing the Our Lady of Hope Church.

In 1906, Plaintiff established Our Lady of Hope Parish in Springfield, Massachusetts. The parish supported Our Lady of Hope Church, located, as noted, in downtown Springfield at the southwest corner of Carew and Armory Streets. In 1925, the Our Lady of Hope Church was built; a rectory, convent, and school followed within a few years. Our Lady of Hope was the first parish church for the Irish immigrants of the “Hungry Hill” section of the City.

Due to a decline in the number of clergy and parishioners, in October 2004 the Bishop of the Diocese, the Most Reverend Timothy A. McDonnell, initiated an internal study of how best to allocate the Diocese's human and financial resources. The Bishop formed a committee of clergy and parishioners, known as the Pastoral Planning Committee, to undertake this process. In August 2009, the Committee submitted to the Bishop its final recommendations, which called for the closing of Our Lady of Hope and for the merger of the parish with St. Mary's East Springfield to form a new parish by the name of St. Mary Mother of Hope. On January 1, 2010, the Bishop adopted these recommendations and ended religious services at Our Lady of Hope.

According to the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church, a closed parish may begin the process of deconsecrating church property, in which all materials are “reduced to profane (non-sacred) use” but not “sordid use.” 2 (Dkt. No. 17, Ex. 3 Bonzagni Aff. ¶ 20.) The Diocese has set forth specific procedures for deconsecrating church property in a manner consistent with Canon Law:

First, efforts are made to relocate any such symbols to other Catholic locations within the Diocese of Springfield. Second, efforts are made to relocate such articles to other Catholic locations outside the Diocese of Springfield. Third, such articles may be removed and placed in storage for future use. Fourth, where religious symbols are not deemed proper for storage, Canon Law mandates that steps be taken to make certain that such sacred symbols are not desecrated or put to sordid use. Simply [put], all such items are properly destroyed.(Dkt. No. 17, Ex. 4 Pomerleau Aff. ¶ 5). One final alternative is the sale of church property, which requires that either (1) the purchaser agree not to desecrate the property or put it to sordid use; or (2) church officials be permitted to remove all religious symbols from the property. ( Id. at ¶ 6.)

Here, the church property at issue takes a variety of shapes, as detailed in the complaint:

1. Our Lady of Hope is a Latin-cross church.

2. The frieze of the portico's architrave is inscribed “IN LOCO ISTO DABO PACEM (“In this place I will grant you peace”).

3. In its tympanum is a cast stone relief of the Madonna and Child attended by Angels.

4. Above the pedimented portico in the gable field of the church is an escutcheon of the Madonna (Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ) a crowned letter “M.”

5. Above each entry to the church is an inscription: “PAX INTRANTIBUS” (“Peace to those who enter”), “HAEC ES PORTA DOMINI” (“This is the Gate of the Lord”), and SALUS EXEUNTIBUS (“Blessing to those who leave”).

6. Entry to the campanile is beneath an arched opening with cast stone relief of the Apostle and in its tympanum angels flanking the letters [IHS],” symbolizing the first three letters of the name of Jesus in classical Greek, above a frieze inscribed “HOC EST CORPUS MEUM” (“This is my body”).

7. [F]our large stone crosses and sixty-five stain glass windows depicting significant events in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

(Compl. ¶¶ 14, 17.)

It is particularly significant for purposes of this stage of the litigation that Plaintiff's plans for deconsecrating Our Lady of Hope are still in the development phase and have not been finalized. Whether the ultimate plans would be subject to the Ordinance's strictures, or would be exempted from them, is not, therefore, known at this time.

C. The “Our Lady of Hope Historic District.

In late 2009, rumor of Our Lady of Hope's possible closing spread quickly. Concerned about the fate of the church, some Springfield citizens urged the City to take preemptive action by creating a new historic district encompassing the church.3 The Historic Districts Act gives municipalities the power to enact individual ordinances establishing the confines of each historic district. The Act offers several considerations for selecting a historic district:

the historic and architectural value and significance of the site, building or structure, the general design, arrangement, texture, material and color of the features involved, and the relation of such features to similar features of buildings and structures in the surrounding area.Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 40C, § 7 (West 2010). The heart of the Act is its provision regarding alterations of a building's architectural design:

[N]o building or structure within an historic district shall be constructed or altered in any way that affects exterior architectural features unless the commission shall first have issued a certificate of appropriateness, a certificate of non-applicability or a certificate of hardship with respect to such construction or alteration.

Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 40C, § 6 (West 2010). To obtain an approval or exemption, landowners must submit engineering plans and make a presentation to the local historical commission. Currently, there are more than two hundred local historic districts in Massachusetts, and eight exist in the City of Springfield, including the one at issue here.4

In September 2009, the City's Office of Planning and Economic Development sent a report to the Springfield Historical Commission (“the Commission”) detailing its proposal for the “Our Lady of Hope Local Historic District.” The report noted that the Our Lady of Hope Church “represents the best work of Springfield architect John Donohue and is “a well-preserved example of the Italian Renaissance design.” (Dkt. No. 26, McCarroll Aff. Ex. 4 at 4.) The report also offered a pragmatic reason for its decision: designating the Church a local historic district would allow it “to avoid the same possible fate” as St. Joseph's Church, which was sold to a developer shortly after its closing and was eventually...

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