Monday, December 1, 2008

New York Times -- Houses of Worship Meet Bureaucracy

The New York Times has run an article about the recent destruction of a historic church in Brooklyn despite the objections of preservationists and local activists. The conditions are different in a host of ways, but the article has resonance for those of us interested in the fate of Jewish historical sites in Europe, and particularly in post-communist Europe.

Daunted by the cost of repairing and maintaining the 1899 building, the congregation had sold it to a developer for $9.75 million. He plans to build a 70-unit apartment building, and the congregation will erect a smaller church on the site.

The destruction went forward even though preservationists and the area’s City Council representative had repeatedly implored the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to schedule a hearing on potential landmark status for the church, which was on the National and State Register of Historic Places.

Feelings on the issue ran so high that at a City Council hearing last year on the reappointment of Robert B. Tierney as chairman of the landmarks commission, the city councilman, Vincent J. Gentile, publicly berated the agency for declining to act. “It was a part of our history in this community being torn away from us,” Mr. Gentile said in an interview. “The sad part is, it didn’t have to be.”

Houses of worship are among the most sensitive issues facing the landmarks commission. Mandating that a church be preserved can not only impose a heavy financial burden on a congregation, it also raises the specter of state interference with religious freedom. So the commission has been especially loath to take on churches or synagogues that don’t want to be designated.

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