A Massachusetts Superior Court is soon to consider the interplay of three important planning principles – historic preservation, sustainable development, and freedom of religion. A Unitarian Universalist church is suing the Historic District Commission of the Town of Bedford (Commission) over the Commission’s denial of the church’s request to install solar panels on a building located within the Bedford Historic District, claiming that the denial infringes on its religious freedom.
The First Parish in Bedford, Unitarian Universalist (First Parish) was established in 1729 shortly after the incorporation of the Town of Bedford. The First Parish Meetinghouse, designed in the Federalist Style by noted American architect Asher Benjamin, was constructed in 1817 and has been used by its members continuously ever since. The church is in the Town’s Historic District.
In 2016, First Parish applied for a certificate of appropriateness to install solar panels on the Meetinghouse, but the Commission denied the proposal. Now, the Commission is facing suit in Middlesex Superior Court over allegations that its denial of the certificate of appropriateness burdens First Parish’s free exercise of religion in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as Article II of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.
First Parish alleges in its complaint that Unitarian Universalists “are called to join with others to halt practices that fuel global warming/climate change, to instigate sustainable alternatives, and to mitigate the impending effects of global warming/climate change with just and ethical responses.” First Parish created an Energy Conservation Taskforce “to evaluate and recommend updates to the First Parish buildings, including the Meetinghouse, designed to reduce First Parish’s carbon footprint.” The Taskforce’s work has included restoring Meetinghouse windows, installing new storm windows, and converting the Meetinghouse’s water heater from a gas burner to an electric heat pump system. The next action item for the Taskforce is to install solar panels on the roofs of First Parish buildings to generate 75% of all First Parish energy needs from the sun.
The Commission held three public hearing sessions from April to June, 2016 to consider First Parish’s solar proposal. First Parish states in its complaint that at the public hearings Commission members said that they would not consider any “freedom of religion” arguments when reviewing the certification of appropriateness request. Reportedly, the Bedford Historic Preservation Commission and the Bedford Energy Task Force, among others, supported the solar plan. The Commission, however, denied the application even though there was no public opposition. According to First Parish, denial of the request has unreasonably infringed on its free exercise of religion.
First Parish has also filed a separate Open Meeting Law complaint, because it claims that the Commission’s chairman “arrived at the June 1, 2016 HDC hearing with a previously prepared and distributed motion to deny the Congregation’s application for appropriateness.” The Commission’s denial allegedly repeated verbatim the motion in its entirety. First Parish also asserts that the Commission’s denial exceeds its authority, is “legally untenable, whimsical, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious.” First Parish’s complaint is available here.