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Landmarks Profile: First Covenant Church

Updated: Oct 11, 2020

This church’s congregation began in 1889 as the Swedish Christian Mission Church. In 1907 they constructed this new church building at Bellevue and Pine designed by John Creutzer. By then they were known as the Swedish Tabernacle Church. As the name suggests, the congregation were Swedish -- early records in the church archives are all in Swedish, not English.

The First Covenant Church was made a landmark in 1981. The congregation did not agree that the city had jurisdiction and argued against designation. After the mayor signed ordinance 112415 in 1985 imposing controls on the building, the church filed suit. They challenged based on the free exercise of religion clause in the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution, and a similar and but more narrowly written clause in the Washington State Constitution.

Although the applicability of landmarks law was upheld in the initial trial, the State Supreme Court reversed that on appeal in 1991. The National Trust for Historic Preservation summarizes the case’s determination that churches cannot unwillingly be designated landmarks:

"Summary. Landmark designation of historic church is unconstitutional, even though the church had no plans for alteration and had never applied for or been denied any permit. The court held, under the Washington Constitution, that the financial burden of a reduced property value, and even the “administrative” burden of having to request approval from a secular governmental authority, was unconstitutional. The court also held that the church was protected under the free speech clause because of the “architectural `proclamation’ of religious belief inherent in [the] Church’s exterior.”

The court determined that due to the Constitutionally protected separation of church and state, the city could not apply controls on the church building while it was still operating as a church. Later rulings have determined that religious institutions in Washington State cannot even be nominated unless they want to have landmark status.

This is designated a landmark, but until it changes hands to a secular owner the law will not apply.

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