The D.C. case is particularly interesting because the building doesn't fit the traditional "historic" category and because the congregation says it doesn't reflect its theology, Ms. Vitullo-Martin says. "Making the claim that the Brutalism of the architecture is at odds with their theology is an unusual First Amendment claim."
Yet it's far from certain the church can win in the courts, legal experts say. While there are no litigated historic preservation cases under RLUIPA, there are prior cases under other religious freedom laws.
"I find the church's claim very sympathetic, but courts have been fairly skeptical about claims that a congregation is 'substantially burdened,'" says Robert Tuttle, professor of law at George Washington University. As a technical phrase, that means "the restriction makes the religious activity effectively impracticable."
The courts tend to say, he adds, that if there are alternative uses for the structure, the church could use it as it is or go elsewhere and build another however it likes."