Communication Currents

Destroying a Church Building to Advance Free Speech Rights

October 1, 2011
Freedom of Expression

Destroying a church building in Washington, D.C. could represent the climax of an important free speech victory for the members of that church. During a legal battle over the past few years, members of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist argued their free speech rights included the right to shape the messages communicated by their building. Eventually, their free speech argument about the communicative nature of their building won, which should draw attention to the importance of considering the rhetoric of architecture.

Situated just two blocks from the White House, the Church’s building is a plain concrete octagonal building that likely appears to most people passing by to be the home of a secret governmental national security entity. The bunker-esque building rises like a giant, cracking slab out of the sidewalk with a shadowed doorway hidden from the street that invites more questions than visitors. In December of 2007, the District of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Review Board gave the building a historic designation—against the wishes of the congregation—which would protect the building from being destroyed or substantially altered since the building is a prime example of Brutalist architecture (the same style as the FBI building). However, the congregation remained determined to demolish their own building and sued for the right to do so. The arguments advanced by Church leaders during the struggle offer insights into understanding the important role architecture plays in a group’s communication.

Church leaders argued their free speech rights should include what their building communicates to the community. Darrow Kirkpatrick, who was the church’s lay leader at the time the historic designation was made, claimed the building did not communicate the messages the members wished to offer about themselves: “We believe this brutalist, unwelcoming, bunkerlike building is not a proper representation of our practice or our theology.” Similarly, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a law firm that defends religious freedoms, told city officials that “church property is often, as is the case here, an expression of a church’s theology and religious mission.”

The Review Board responded the decision was made purely on architectural grounds and did not include considerations of First Amendment issues. After the building received historic designation, the congregation sued to revoke such status and have the right to demolish the building. Their lawsuit, filed in August of 2008, argued the designation violated federal statues protecting the free exercise rights of religious groups and violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Before the federal courts ruled on the case, the District of Columbia’s Planning Director ruled in May of 2009 in favor of the church and removed the historic designation, thus opening the process for the church to seek demolition and building permits (although the building still stands more than two years later).

A key argument in the Church’s effort to gain this victory came as they stressed how the Brutalist style of the building contradicted the religious beliefs they wished to express. Darrow Kirkpatrick, the church’s lay leader at the time, argued the building makes the group seem like a secretive and uninviting religion. Alluding to a saying by the famous architect Louis Sullivan (a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright and often called the “father of modernism”), Kirkpatrick argued, “In this case, we don’t feel the form follows the function.” He added:

    “The building, through its architecture, is sending the wrong message to our community and     

     inhibits our ability to interact with the community. We need to be a visible, welcoming

     presence, on a living corner. It’s central to who we are. Nothing is more basic to a church than     

     being able to express its religious exercise through its architecture.”

Church leaders wove scriptural references and teachings of their faith’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, into their arguments. Even the legal filings advanced the communicative argument. The lawsuit included arguments regarding problems with the messages conveyed by the Brutalist architecture. Instead of a historically important building, the Church claimed in its lawsuit that its members wanted a practical building that matched their theological beliefs: “The current structure makes it difficult for the Church to follow the Scriptural foundation of its worship.” Instead, the lawsuit noted, “Third Church members believe that [scriptures] mandate that their church building be a welcoming place that will attract prospective new members and permit ministering to the community.” Not only did the building’s design prevent the Church from communicating the messages it wished to present about itself, but it was forcing the Church to present an image that contradicted the Church’s religious beliefs. By demanding the Church maintain its current structure, the District was forcing the Church to communicate something it did not truly believe.  

As the case of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in Washington D.C. demonstrates, consideration must be given to how architecture powerfully works to impact those living, working, or even worshipping within a particular space. As professor Darryl Hattenhauer explained, “Churches and shopping malls, doors and stairs—these architectural items not only tell us their meaning and function, but also influence our behavior.” He added that architecture “induces us to do what others would have us to do” and even compared it to a sermon. If buildings are preaching, then we should listen.

The free speech rights of religious groups do not merely exist in what they say with spoken word or written communication. Being able to communicate their theology through their building—the first exposure most people have to the group—is also an important free speech right. Other churches have fought historic designation efforts but usually unsuccessfully. Although such cases have not always included First Amendment claims and perhaps none involved architecture so inherently at odds with theology as the Third Church of Christ, Scientist case, it is possible that the success in this case will result in additional First Amendment claims concerning church architecture. When the Brutalist church building in D.C. is destroyed, it will represent a victory for free speech rights of the Church’s members. 

About the author (s)

Brian T. Kaylor

James Madison University

Assistant Professor