A state appeals court in Minnesota ruled that officials of the Roman Catholic Church may tear down a church that was gutted by a fire without violating state law.

Portions of the Church of St. Mary in Melrose were damaged by a fire in 2016. Church officials announced plans to demolish the structure and build a new church near the site. But a group of parishioners calling themselves the Friends to Restore St. Mary’s filed a lawsuit suit in 2017, arguing that demolishing the structure would violate a Minnesota law known as the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA). They asserted that the building should be restored, not demolished.

Under MERA, actions can be blocked if they are likely to cause the “pollution, impairment, or destruction of the air, water, land or other natural resources located within the state.” The law has been interpreted to mean that historic properties are included under “natural resources.”

The church, which was built in 1898, is considered historic and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. The fire, an act of arson by a 13-year-old who has not been identified, gutted most of the church’s interior, and it’s no longer used for any parish activities.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals, affirming a lower-court finding, ruled that decisions about the fate of the church rest with religious leaders, citing a legal principle known as the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The doctrine grew out of a line of U.S. Supreme Court cases designed to protect the autonomy of religious organizations. It states in part that civil courts may not intervene in matters of internal church governance or attempt to interpret purely ecclesiastical matters.

“We conclude that claims relating to a religious organization’s internal decision on what to do with an arson-damaged, consecrated worship space are more analogous, with respect to faith and mission, to selecting ministers or determining church membership than to claims relating to secular aspects of an employment relationship or sexual harassment,” observed the court. “On the record before us, the decision to remove features of religious significance and demolish the church building is an internal decision that affects the faith and mission of the church. Appellant’s MERA claim cannot be adjudicated without violating the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.”

Bishop Donald Kettler of the St. Cloud Diocese asserted that the church would have to be rebuilt to conform to modern architectural requirements for Catholic churches. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported in 2018 that the fight over the church’s fate had turned bitter, dividing members of the parish.

The case is Friends to Restore St. Mary’s v. Church of St. Mary, Melrose.

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