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LLC v. Church of Saint Mary

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

September 3, 2019

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

          Erik F. Hansen, Elizabeth M. Cadem, Martin C. Melang, Burns & Hansen, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota (for appellant)

          Cooper S. Ashley, Cyri A. Van Hecke, Maslon LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondents)

          Considered and decided by Reyes, Presiding Judge; Bjorkman, Judge; and Rodenberg, Judge.


         The 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 church itself.



         Appellant 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.


         This 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.[1] 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).

         The 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.

         In 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.

         A 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.

         Although 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.

         Apparently 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 building.[2]

          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."[3] This appeal follows.


         Does the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine preclude adjudication ...

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