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...