Friends to Restore St. Mary's, LLC, Appellant,
Church of Saint Mary, Melrose, et al., Respondents.
Stearns County District Court File No. 73-CV-17-7601
F. Hansen, Elizabeth M. Cadem, Martin C. Melang, Burns &
Hansen, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota (for appellant)
S. Ashley, Cyri A. Van Hecke, Maslon LLP, Minneapolis,
Minnesota (for respondents)
Considered and decided by Reyes, Presiding Judge; Bjorkman,
Judge; and Rodenberg, Judge.
ecclesiastical abstention doctrine bars adjudication of
claims under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA),
Minn. Stat. §§ 116B.01-.13 (2018), if an
affirmative defense cannot be resolved without disturbing the
ruling of a governing ecclesiastical body with respect to
issues of doctrine and without interfering with an internal
church decision that affects the faith and mission of the
challenges summary judgment dismissing its MERA claim,
arguing that adjudication of the claim is not precluded by
the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, and that neither the
Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United
States Constitution nor the Freedom of Conscience Clause of
the Minnesota Constitution bar the MERA claim. Because
adjudication of appellant's MERA claim is precluded by
the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, we affirm.
appeal arises from a dispute over whether an arson-damaged
church building is a "historical resource" entitled
to protection under MERA. Appellant Friends to Restore St.
Mary's, LLC, was formed by a group of current and former
parishioners of respondent Church of St. Mary, Melrose (St.
Mary's or parish), after the St. Mary's church
building was damaged by a fire. Appellant seeks an injunction
preventing respondents from demolishing the church building
"or otherwise impairing its esthetic and historic
characteristics, including but not limited to the removal of
architectural features," and a declaration that the
church building is a natural resource and cannot be
demolished under MERA. In addition to the parish, respondents
include the Diocese of St. Cloud (the diocese) and The Most
Reverend Donald J. Kettler, Bishop of St. Cloud (Bishop
Kettler or the bishop).
facts relevant to this appeal are undisputed. The St.
Mary's church building was dedicated in 1899. It was
listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.
Although religious properties are not ordinarily listed on
the National Register, the registration form states that the
church building is historically significant as an institution
of outstanding social, cultural, ethnic, and religious
importance to the community of Melrose. The Romanesque
Revival style recalls the architecture of many of the
twin-towered churches and cathedrals of medieval Germany.
March 2016, the church building was gutted in a fire. The
blaze and fire-suppression efforts substantially damaged or
destroyed much of the interior of the church, but left the
exterior relatively intact. The church building is no longer
usable for any parish activities. All masses and worship
services since the fire have occurred at a neighboring church
or the St. Mary's school gymnasium.
parish steering committee studied the viability of restoring
the church building- in consultation with architects,
construction companies, and other restoration
professionals-and interviewed four construction companies.
Ultimately, the parish presented a "narrative on a
proposed restoration post fire damage" to the Diocesan
Building Commission (DBC). The narrative recommended
restoration to "pre-fire condition to the extent that it
is technically feasible and will meet the minimum code
requirements," rather than construction of a new church
building. But the narrative acknowledged that
[f]rom a liturgical perspective, our experience on Catholic
Church projects over the past 15-20 years would likely
indicate the incorporation of a much different interior space
than what existed pre-fire. It is likely that relatively
drastic changes to the finishes, furnishing and possibly
functional layout based on the "Built of Living
Stones" document may be suggested if not required. We
will defer such opinions to the [DBC] and/or a liturgical
consultant to be retained by the Church.
the church building is owned by St. Mary's, under canon
law, the final decision to restore or build rests with the
bishop. The DBC advises the bishop as to whether the
renovation or building of a worship space meets the
liturgical guidelines of the Roman Catholic Church. Applying
liturgical guidelines established since the Second Vatican
Council, the DBC unanimously recommended construction of a
new church building. Bishop Kettler accepted the
recommendation, determining that the many changes and
developments in liturgy and worship since the 1899 dedication
require construction of a new church building.
due to zoning constraints at the existing site, plans were
developed for new construction on nearby land the parish had
previously set aside for other purposes. The plans
incorporate various components of the existing church
building, including stained glass windows, religious statues
and other art, bells, the altar, and other salvageable
attributes. After removing these features, some of which are
identified on the National Register registration form,
respondents intend to demolish the church
Respondents moved for summary judgment, arguing that granting
the relief sought in the complaint would violate the
ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and impose an
unconstitutional burden on St. Mary's free-exercise
rights under the state and federal constitutions. The parties
stipulated that discovery was not necessary for resolution of
the summary-judgment motion. After a hearing, the district
court granted respondents' motion, concluding that the
ecclesiastical abstention doctrine "precludes this Court
from exercising any authority to issue an injunction under
MERA to prevent the demolition of the [church]
building." This appeal follows.
the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine preclude adjudication