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A Publication of WTVP

Recently, the issue of historic preservation has been front-page news. The impact of designating a building historic, positive and negative, short term and long term, needs to be reviewed within the context of the future the City of Peoria is attempting to create. In principle, very few people would disagree that truly historic buildings should be strongly considered for historic preservation. Most people don’t want our city to look like "any town USA." The Heart of Illinois Plan, as developed by DPZ Associates, is clearly an indication that Peoria wants to establish its own unique identity.

Having just been involved in the historic designation process, it’s very clear there’s no "process." There’s no agreed-upon criteria for evaluating a site. Further, the definition of "historic" is non-existent and open to interpretation. The issue of funding is ignored completely.

In our situation, the issue of separation of church and state was the major theme. Both the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 and the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibit application of land use laws that impose a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion unless the government can demonstrate a compelling interest-such as a substantial threat to public safety, peace, or order. Courts have uniformly held that historic preservation doesn’t constitute a compelling government interest because it pertains to aesthetics, not safety. This is consistent with federal and state laws.

The Historic Preservation Commission has drafted a list of properties in the downtown Peoria area they would like to consider designating as historic landmarks. It appears 22 of the facilities are churches or religious organizations; the remainder are commercial properties. Are you a member of the First United Methodist Church or St. Bernard’s Catholic Church? If so, your church is on the list. No church should have to spend the time, effort, and money the Universalist Unitarian Church did to protect its right to religion. We shouldn’t have to replay the Unitarian Church situation another 22 times.

Accordingly, the City Council should consider adding an exemption under the existing ordinance similar to the one in effect in the City of Chicago. The specific language of the proposed amendment is as follows (Section 16-39: Properties or Structures Owned by a Religious Organization): "No property or structure that is owned by a religious organization and is used primarily as a place for the conduct of religious ceremonies or business shall be designated as a historical landmark without the consent of its owner."

Clearly, there are various legal, ethical, and moral concerns raised by attempts to designate religious bodies that mandate the Peoria Municipal Code be amended. The goal of historic preservation can still be achieved while protecting the religious freedom of churches and avoiding unnecessary legal entanglements. IBI

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