A congregation fought—and won—a three-year battle to install solar panels on its historic building.
Workers install solar panels on First Parish in Bedford in April 2019. (© 2019 Robert Bass)
When Karl Winkler was still relatively new to First Parish in Bedford, he imagined a bold possibility for the Massachusetts congregation. A smile lights up his face as he remembers talking with his wife about the Unitarian Universalist community back in 2008, saying: “Wouldn’t it be great if for our 200th anniversary, we could become net zero?”
Winkler, an engineer and the cofounder of a beverage technology company in Bedford, tells the story with the Rev. John Gibbons, First Parish’s senior minister. The pair talk in Gibbons’s office. Yards away from them, on the outside of the room’s far wall, a blue plastic tarp protects roofing materials from several inches of early March snow. That pile, ready and waiting, hints at the congregation’s three-year fight to align its historic meetinghouse with its modern, intertwined environmental and religious values.
Fellow First Parish community members embraced Winkler’s idea to reduce their church’s carbon footprint. A Climate Justice Group formed. In 2015, the congregation of 401 members earned Green Sanctuary status from the Unitarian Universalist Association for its commitment to environmental responsiblity. Around that time, Winkler and Gibbons formed an Energy Conservation (ECo) Taskforce along with members Jennifer McClain, Joel Parks, and Dan Bostwick.
The Taskforce evaluated which updates could reduce the meetinghouse’s carbon footprint and developed a comprehensive plan. It broke the plan into bite-sized projects—refurbishing windows and adding insulation, new storm windows, and a new heating, ventilation, and cooling system, among them—to complete in time for the building’s 2017 bicentennial. “We did a whole bunch of things . . . reducing our energy footprint in phase one,” Winkler explains. Phase three, the end game, is using geothermal energy. In the meantime, the ECo Taskforce looked ahead to the second phase. “Phase two was going to be solar panels,” Winkler says, his smile fading.
Approximately 14,500 people live within Bedford’s 14 square miles, about 20 miles northwest of Boston. Some of the town’s oldest buildings and spaces fall within its historic district. Property owners in this district must apply for a Certificate of Appropriateness before changing their land or structures; the Historic District Commission (HDC), a town board of five full members, reviews the applications. Paint color, signs, satellite dishes, demolitions, and more require the commission’s approval.
First Parish’s meetinghouse graces Bedford’s town green. The congregation, like the town, dates back to 1729, though its first meetinghouse blew down in the Great September Gale of 1815, according to Gibbons. The current structure, based on a design by Unitarian architect Asher Benjamin, replaced the first building in 1817, in part with beams from the original meetinghouse.
As First Parish’s solar energy plans coalesced in 2016, ECo Taskforce members prepared to meet with the HDC. Solar panels, if they adhere to specific guidelines, are allowed in the historic district. Winkler notes that the meetinghouse roof present during the HDC hearings, installed in the mid-1900s, wasn’t historic, and would be replaced ahead of the solar panel installation. “We followed their guidelines, and after all the work we had been doing, we figured this would be an easy—or an easier—sell,” he says. When the congregation discussed possible HDC solar panel approval at a special congregational meeting, “it was a robust discussion,” recalls First Parish member Rebecca Neale. An attorney who works and lives in Bedford, Neale remembers someone commenting that the panels were a form of religious expression.
Winkler first proposed solar panels to the HDC in April 2016. Instead of voting, commission members asked him to return the following month with more information. At that point, the ECo Taskforce looped in Neale. They returned to the HDC in May with a new presentation. Winkler covered technical details, addressing the solar panels’ “visual noise,” aesthetics, and visibility. Neale explained Unitarian Universalism’s Seventh Principle, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” and detailed UUs’ environmental commitment. “We absolutely wanted to frame the issue as ‘We want to do this because of our religious beliefs,’” Neale explains. They also wanted to assure the commission that congregants cared deeply about preserving their historic meetinghouse. During the discussion, three of the commission’s five members said that solar panels were not a religious issue.
First Parish members returned to the HDC that June. Each month, a noticeable audience had gathered, with many voicing support for the project. Beyond HDC members, no one objected publicly. Despite support from the Bedford Chamber of Commerce, the Bedford Historic Preservation Commission, and others, the HDC voted against issuing a Certificate of Appropriateness with a 3-2 vote. “And they did so on what we regarded, and continue to regard, as arbitrary and capricious reasons,” Winkler says. “They’ve provided very little in the way of rationale for their decision. The only mechanism for appeal was to file suit in the Superior Court.”
Within short order, the congregation’s Parish Committee voted to take Bedford’s Historic District Commission to court. “In fact, we were suing our own members, because the chair of the Historic District Commission is a member of First Parish,” Gibbons says, highlighting the discomfort of such a lawsuit in a relatively small town. A Solar Committee quickly formed to raise money for legal costs, but Boston law firm Sherin and Lodgen agreed to take on the case pro bono, freeing donated funds for incidental legal costs.
Tom Smith, a member of West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Rocky River, Ohio, has tracked UU solar energy initiatives since 2013, when his congregation embarked on its own solar panel project. He estimates that approximately 140 UU congregations throughout the United States have, or will soon install, solar panels on their property. Eight are working on community solar panel installations. Smith’s sense is that any church proposing “the first large, unusual [solar panel] installation” in their town or city will meet at least some resistance. Most congregations, he notes, frame their projects as religiously motivated, but as far as he knows, First Parish is the only UU congregation to encounter enough of a roadblock to pursue litigation.
Attorney Sander Rikleen, a partner at Sherin and Lodgen, ultimately became First Parish’s lead attorney. Rikleen argued that HDC members had provided scant justification for their decision and that not approving First Parish’s solar panels impinged on the congregation’s religious freedom. For the latter, he cited the U.S. Constitution, the Massachusetts Constitution, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law. “This is probably the first case in which I cited RLUIPA,” Rikleen says, noting that Massachusetts has “pretty robust statutes” protecting religious land use.
At the outset, Rikleen wanted to know his clients’ goal: Did they want to make a point, or did they want to get solar panels on their roof? Congregants were clear: they wanted solar panels on their roof so they could generate up to 75 percent of their own energy. “If the goal was to make a point, you would focus on the religious freedom arguments, and if the goal was to get solar panels on your roof, you would be willing to pursue other arguments,” Rikleen explains.
When he took the case, Rikleen was a self-described “newbie” to Unitarian Universalism. It wasn’t obvious to him that installing solar panels qualified as religious expression. “Our team was quite worried that we would get in front of a judge who had no idea what this was about and say, ‘Give me a break. Being a good citizen is not a religious principle,’” he recalls. “And so we obtained affidavits from theology experts.”
Ultimately, a Middlesex County Superior Court judge ordered HDC members to rearticulate the reasoning for their vote. Their new wording failed by Massachusetts standards and the judge found that the commission’s decision had been too arbitrary, ruling for First Parish in August 2018. The congregation won, but not on religious grounds. “We went where the court allowed us to go,” Rikleen explains.
As the town of Bedford prepared to appeal, First Parish members pushed ahead, too. They pulled together a proposal for Bedford’s Town Meeting, its legislative body, asking Bedford citizens to approve a bylaw change allowing solar panels in the historic district without HDC approval, provided they conform with the town’s guidelines. That move paid off; the bylaw change won approval last November with a 265-61 vote. With that, the town of Bedford dropped its appeal. In January, the HDC voted to issue First Parish a Certificate of Appropriateness. Three years after first proposing the project, the congregation replaced its roof in March and finally installed solar panels in April, bringing Winkler’s net zero dream closer to reality.
First Parish in Bedford met its goal of getting solar panels on its meetinghouse roof, but it didn’t set a legal precedent or make waves far beyond Bedford. Rikleen notes that, due to its specific turns, the lawsuit isn’t a good test case. First Parish’s success “does indicate, however, that if you’re in a community that is broadly supportive of solar energy, one way of doing this is to change your bylaws,” he says. Rikleen adds that while victory hinged on other details, First Parish’s religious freedom case was strong—and that religious progressives have as much right to that freedom as the conservatives who have gone to court.
In fact, the idea of religious progressives seeking legal redress seems to catch many off guard. “I was a little bemused when I got a call from a conservative media outlet expressing surprise that in the pointy-head[ed] liberal Northeast, we would be making an argument based on religious freedom,” Rikleen says. “But I don’t find that odd at all. The Constitutional right protects everyone.”
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Heather Beasley Doyle is a freelance journalist and UU based in Arlington, Massachusetts, whose work has appeared in Episcopal News Service, TheNation.com, Al Jazeera America, and other publications.