City Paper Widget

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

St. Thomas' Parish Church Watches Neighbors Organize Against It

The leadership of St. Thomas' Parish Episcopal Church (1772 Church Street NW) sat silently through a meeting of neighbors attempting to thwart its planned expansion. The May 20 meeting was organized Neighbors of St. Thomas Church, DC, a group critical of the expansion. It took place at the Keegan Theater (1742 Church Street).

Amid protestations of no ill feeling, nearly every speaker pronounced against the expansion. But there was a great difference of opinion on much else, especially how much the church was within its rights to go ahead with its development, and how militant the community should be in opposition.

The church plans to build a new church at the corner of 18th and Church Streets, as well as a six or seven-story apartment on Church Street. The income from the apartment building will fund the construction of the church. See an SALM February 28 blog post for previous coverage. 

Moderator Noah Bopp, Founder and Director of the nearby School for Ethics of Global Leadership (1528 18th Street) labored mightily, and nearly always successfully, to keep things civil.

A lot of people against the church

But, of course, the few very unreasonable voices make the best copy. One man said the apartment building would include "low income condos", which were a "scam". David Alpert of the blog Greater Greater Washington (and neighbor of the church) explained that less-expensive units in an apartment building were not a scam, but required under the "inclusionary zoning" requirements of DC.

Another critic said, more reasonably, that the project was "cost prohibitive" and the church's goal should be "community service". Yet another told members of the church present the project was "out of keeping with your responsibility for historic preservation."

"Can we find a win/win?" said one Church Street resident. "Personally, I am very skeptical."

Silverstein for the church

The only person seemingly willing to speak on behalf of St. Thomas' Parish Episcopal Church was Mike Silverstein. Silverstein is Commissioner for district 06 on Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 2B/Dupont. Silverstein thanked the organizers and moderator, but he said some of the rhetoric he had heard before that night from anti-church partisans "bordered on hate speech", for example, terming the church "a failed franchise".

Such talk "damages what we as a community stand for", Silverstein said.

"We are a community and have to remain a community," Silverstein also said. He urged those assembled to "defend the rights of Christians like you defend the rights of anyone else".

Silverstein said the opponents of the church might find themselves on very shaky legal ground if they attempted to prevent construction of a church on land owed by that church. He recalled the case of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, formerly located at 16th and I Streets in ANC2B. This case dragged through the courts for years as historical preservationists attempted to block demolition of a church that parishioners no longer wanted. This case resembled the case of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, Silverstein said, in that any serious legal challenge to construction of a new church would likely involve both the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), both of which would work in favor of the church.

There would be a "very, very high threshold to stop the church", Silverstein said. 

Silverstein admitted those who wish to stop the development might find safer legal ground if they chose to block the construction of the multi-story residential building only.

Silverstein's remark brought some discussion of RLUIPA, its wording, and its precedents, which was eventually closed by Bopp when it threatened to get too deep in the weeds.

At the end of the meeting, organizers invited attendees to stay and participate in small working groups to further advance the community's opposition to the project.

The proposed expansion of St. Thomas' Parish Episcopal Church has also been reported by Greater Greater Washington and District Source.

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