New York Interfaith Commission on Landmarking Religious Property

The New York Interfaith Commission on Landmarking Religious Property was created in 1980 by the Committee of Religious Leaders of the City of New York. Its charge by the Committee was to study the landmarking of religious property in New York City. The Commission's creation was a direct result of the proposed landmark designation of the United Methodist Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, frustrating that congregation's consideration of options for repairing or replacing a crumbling edifice.

The study phase lasted about 15 months and resulted in the adoption of its Final Report on January 26, 1982, by the Committee of Religious Leaders. The Final Report, which is available online, was announced publicly on March 3 at a press conference held at the Manhattan offices of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The Report created a major national impact in calling attention to an extraordinary abuse whereby a government panel could effectively usurp the largest asset of a religious congregation — its building — and compel all other corporate assets be held hostage to the preservation of the building, regardless of the negative consequences to its ministry.

The Commission, originally focused on New York City, broadened its constituent membership in 1983 and became a statewide coalition to work for the reform of landmark laws. Its partner members include the New York State Catholic Conference, the New York State Community of Churches, the Council of Churches of the City of New York, the Queens Federation of Churches, the New York Board of Rabbis, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

Remedial legislation was introduced in Albany in 1983 to permit religious and nonprofit organizations to withdraw their property actually used for missional purposes from the embrace of landmarking regulations. Despite extensive public hearings and media attention over two years, the legislature failed to act on the matter.

The problem of landmark regulation of religious property was included in the 1984 Second Conference on Government Intervention in Religious Affairs with a paper Ministry vs. Mortar: A Landmark Conflict, (also available online) delivered by the Rev. N. J. L'Heureux, Jr., executive director of the Queens Federation of Churches and chairman of the Interfaith Commission.

During the major New York City Charter Revision process in 1989, the Interfaith Commission was successful in urging the Charter Revision Commission to place on the ballot an amendment to create a special, independent tribunal to hear the appeals of religious and other nonprofit organizations from adverse decisions of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The Charter Commission, alarmed by the political zealotry of the preservationists and fearful that they would defeat the whole Charter, provided two ballot questions: one for a completely new Charter for the City of New York and a separate question for the one section dealing with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The voters passed both questions in November but, thanks to the work of the Interfaith Commission, the landmarks proposal received more votes than did the main Charter question itself!

The findings of the Interfaith Commission figured prominently in Congressional Hearings in 1992 on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (passed in 1993), and in 2000 on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (passed later that same year).

In 1997, the Landmarks Preservation Commission sought City Council action to amend the New York City Administrative Code to give it the authority to issue "civil penalties" (fine first, trial-if-you-want-it later) as a parallel to the criminal penalties which have always been in the law. The legislation proposed a new offense dubbed "Demolition by Neglect" -- a violation which was aimed at leaky roofs and peeling paint on landmarks-designated buildings. Penalties of as much as $15,000 per day were proposed for the most severe violations. The intervention of the Interfaith Commission before the City Council effectively stopped this power grab cold. A weaker bill was passed by the City Council in December 1997, but without the "Demolition by Neglect" provision. In late 2004, the LPC was back with its Demolition by Neglect proposal. The Interfaith Commission is again leading the campaign against this unwise and confiscatory power-grab.

The Interfaith Commission continues to monitor a variety of legislative and administrative actions broadly affecting property owned by religious organizations in New York State, including zoning and property tax matters.

Leadership and staffing for the New York Interfaith Commission on Landmarking Religious Property are provided by the Queens Federation of Churches, 86-17 105th Street, Richmond Hill, New York 11418, (718) 847-6764.

Queens Federation of Churches Last Updated February 2, 2005