Let There Be Light

A Minneapolis church and city leaders square off over windows

On sunlit afternoons the interior of the former Adath Jeshurun synagogue at 34th and Dupont in South Minneapolis is bathed in light filtering through stained-glass windows that flank the sanctuary. Installed in 1927 when the stone temple was erected, the panorama of panes tells in vivid detail a history of the Jewish people from Genesis on down. When the former owners sold the building to the First Unitarian Universalist Church five years ago, they left behind not only the structure's ornate windows--now in need of an estimated $100,000 in repairs--but a monument to the end of an era that had kept Jewish families segregated in the northern reaches of the city.

These two legacies--the stained glass and the synagogue's significance in history--have come into conflict since the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission recommended the 71-year-old building for historic designation in March. While such a status has its advantages, a vote of approval by City Council will also mean that any decision to alter the building, including the windows, will be in the hands not of the current occupants but of the HPC's board. That, say First Universalist members, constitutes a direct infringement on their constitutional right to religious freedom.

In keeping with its Puritan roots, explains church minister Frank Rivas, Unitarian-Universalist theology prefers simple and transparent windows that afford an unimpeded view to the outside: "Clear glass tells us that to look at the spiritual, we look at the world as it is. The trees, the houses across the street, the birds, the bicycles, even the car noises--that's where the holy is." Though the congregation has yet to reach consensus on its preference for the windows, Rivas adds, the cost of fixing the web of severe cracks in the glass would prove prohibitive to the 850-member fold, an influential group of whom are lobbying hard for clear glass.

Bottom line aside, the issue of religious expression exempt from government interference remains. "We don't suggest that religious freedom means you can put your church closer to the curb," congregation president Laura Cooper argues. "We're dealing with an issue of sanctuary space. The city cannot impose symbolism and text on a religious group. If they said to leave the steps the same way, we don't object to that. But if they say to bear on your walls an inscription from another religion, that's wrong. The church, not the city, should decide."

Still, the fellowship hopes to resolve the issue without taking the matter to court. "The church does not want to be in a battle with the city on this issue," insists Harlan Limpert, vice president of the church's trustee board. "The question is how to honor historic preservation and the First Amendment simultaneously." One solution, proposed soon after the 1993 sale, is to remove the stained glass and store it for possible future use--a move Adath Jeshurun's former rabbi has said he supports.

Not long ago, University of Minnesota law professor Michael Stokes Paulson, a constitutional scholar, mailed a letter to the HPC backing the church's position. "To require a church to seek the approval of a government board or commission in order to remove or replace religious symbols from its building that do not reflect the church's viewpoint and theology," it reads, "is exactly the kind of intrusive monitoring and surveillance...that the [Supreme] Court has found unconstitutional."

In that, Paulson may be mistaken. Five years ago, the St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in Boerne, Texas, got into in a zoning dispute with town officials when it applied for a permit to tear out part of its decades-old sanctuary and expand the building which sat in a historic preservation district. The case climbed the appeals ladder, and late last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against the church, essentially invalidating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 that aimed to protect individual and group spiritual practices. (Church and town leaders eventually reached a truce that preserved about 80 percent of the historic structure.)

Fortified by this legal precedent, the city of Minneapolis plans to move forward with the former synagogue's designation. Council member Lisa McDonald, in whose 10th Ward the building is located, says the city's attorney has given the go-ahead for a vote at the July 13 meeting of the Zoning and Planning Committee McDonald chairs. If endorsed, the issue will then be addressed by the City Council as a whole.

Even if a compromise between church members and the HPC can be reached in the meantime, the matter seems sure to spring up again. At the same time the commission recommended First Universalist's quarters for historic designation, it nominated a handful of other old local synagogues, many now used by non-Jewish congregations. Fellowship president Cooper remembers one minister who spoke up at that March meeting. "He said, 'I hope the city will approve us putting a cross on the roof,'" she recalls. "It looked like the city as the final religious authority. I thought that was a chilling moment."

 
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