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When Unity of Washington outgrew its Romanesque Revival building on Capitol Hill, it wasn’t easy to sell. D.C. doesn’t have much of a market for used churches; many congregations have followed their worshippers to the suburbs over the years. The 107-year-old church at 7th and A streets NE had good bones and a graceful presence. But keeping it functional as a church would take hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations, and turning it into condos would cost even more.

So when Unity decided to sell its building, the property sat on the market for a decade, until last November. It turned out the old church was exactly what World Mission Society Church of God was looking for. The 56-year-old Korean Christian denomination has barnstormed the mid-Atlantic in recent years, proselytizing aggressively. It says it has outposts in almost every major city in the world, but hadn’t yet landed in D.C. Unity’s old building was ideally located near the centers of the nation’s power.

“It was a great situation to be close to the agencies, people in government,” explains Jorge Correa, World Mission’s overseer. “They need to know about the truth also.”

So the group bought the building for $1.25 million. Wanting to start services quickly, they began renovating, leaving most of the historic elements the same, save one: the ornate stained glass windows that light the sanctuary. No World Mission Society Church of God building has stained glass windows, because the church won’t hold services in the presence of imagery shaped by light, which it says is rooted in sun worship.

Trying to take those windows out, however, wasn’t easy. A neighborhood group that had used the building for meetings quickly noticed when two panels in one of the large rosette windows disappeared, and notified D.C.’s Historic Preservation Office, which visited and ordered World Mission to stop work immediately.

Now, the case is raising a fundamental question of the sort usually mulled by the church’s neighbors at the Supreme Court: Does the First Amendment, combined with property rights, trump historic preservation? The answer is probably no—which means the Church of God will need to try again for Capitol Hill.

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It’s not uncommon for religious groups,which occupy some of the city’s most historic real estate, to run into preservationist walls. In the most notable recent case, the Third Church of Christ Scientist fought for years to raze its Brutalist building at 16th and Eye streets NW because it cost too much to run as a church. In 2010, they settled out of Superior Court, allowing the building to be torn down. In another pending case, the Third Street Church of God on New Jersey Avenue NW applied to raze three decaying row houses, saying it never had the money to rehabilitate them and wanted a parking lot there instead.

The rationale in those cases was economic hardship: The properties were simply too expensive to maintain.

When World Mission went before the Historic Preservation Review Board to seek permission to take out the windows it had already removed and finish the job, the board said it couldn’t consider the First Amendment or the financial situation in its ruling. So the church tried other arguments: That the building wasn’t that historic, that the windows weren’t original, that replacing them with clear glass wouldn’t be that bad. The nine-member board unanimously rejected their request, expressing indignation at the church.

“You need to be aware that every neighbor is going to be watching,” said review board member Bob Sonderman, who is a warden at a church nearby. “I’m sorry that you purchased a building that maybe you are not going to be able to adapt to the needs that you desire, but the facts are that you did, and perhaps it was a major mistake.”

The church did bring the First Amendment up in appealing the board’s ruling last Friday before the Mayor’s Agent, Peter Byrne, the next level of authority for preservation cases. More of the story came out: Church officials had been looking for two years for a suitable building in their price range. They understood they were buying in a historic district, but say their realtor, Marilyn Cherry of Washington Fine Properties, led them to understand that the building itself wasn’t protected (which, on the witness stand, Cherry denied).

World Mission had renovated other historic properties in London and Christchurch, New Zealand, so local officials didn’t think there would be any problem here. “In the United States, even the money says, ‘In God We Trust,’” Correa told Byrne. “So we figured we could come to an agreement that we could worship the way we wanted.”

At the heart of the case is a 2000 law that grants religious organizations flexibility to challenge land use regulations. Because the church couldn’t use the building without finishing the renovations, World Mission argued that denial of the permit had hurt its fundraising, imposing a “substantial burden.” Letting it replace the windows and hold its twice-weekly services and Bible study every night was “necessary in the public interest.”

“This is the only church that testifies the why, the when, the how, is in the Bible, as it must be,” said August Kruesi, a congregant who sat quietly through most of the hearing with a Bible open in front of him, a pleading look on his face. An aerospace engineer, he says he’s personally donated $200,000 towards the renovation of the church. “These are such important prophecies. This is the only place you will ever hear this, and the only place in the District where people can come and learn.”

Even churches, however, have to follow basic rules of buying real estate, like actually checking a place out before signing a contract. Since historic preservation rules were in place before World Mission Society bought the property, and there were a number of buildings in the area that it could have bought instead, it’s not exactly clear that requiring the preservation of the windows infringes on its rights.

If Byrne rules against the church, as he seemed inclined to do, it will have to ask top brass in Korea for marching orders, Correa says. World Mission might have a chance appealing in court, but that could potentially delay the church’s entry into Washington for years, and meanwhile, it’s out $300,000 in renovations. The kitchen, bathrooms, and fellowship area downstairs are being completely refurbished, and the sanctuary’s been redone with bamboo floors and recessed overhead lighting (None of which required historic approval.) “I really don’t know what to say,” Correa sighs.

Even if it does manage to somehow stay in the building, the window tiff hasn’t gotten World Mission’s local evangelizing off to a good start. Still, its members are the ones feeling persecuted by stickler neighbors. “The last thing we want to do is make the neighborhood upset,” Correa says. “But we thought from the beginning we were being mistreated.”

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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