The idea at Central Presbyterian Church in Merced seemed like a good one — replace an aging sanctuary with a new facility to accommodate the growing congregation.
After years of discussion, parishioners voted 266-75 in January to take down their 1916 sanctuary and build a new one, as well as upgrade a neighboring classroom structure.
But change is often hard, and some congregants formed a nonprofit group, Sanctuary Merced, to oppose the issue. On May 5, the Merced City Council voted 4-3 to declare the church building a local historic resource, which means that tearing down the sanctuary is nearly impossible.
A few days before that ruling, however, church leadership obtained a temporary injunction, which places the historic resource designation on hold, said Greg Sanders, one of the church members on the community relations committee.
Superior Court Judge Ronald Hansen will hear arguments at the end of the month on whether a city has the authority to tell a church what it can and can't do with its building.
Why not simply draw up new plans to remodel the sanctuary without destroying it?
"We have considered many options," Sanders said Wednesday. "We have a nice list of things — heritage items — that we will not part with," including a large stained-glass window from the current sanctuary. But, he added, "It wasn't feasible to remodel just the inside and keep the outside facade. It wouldn't work.
"It's a shame. Nobody's happy about it (spending money on lawyers instead of the building project). What's amazed me is how unified we've become, except for a small splinter group."
Perhaps the biggest irony is that the sanctuary, according to historic records, was built to heal a split between Cumberland Presbyterian and First Presbyterian churches. The two congregations, which represented two branches of Presbyterianism that split during the Civil War, voted to unify in 1912 and build a single sanctuary.
The modern split continues. Merced council members Bill Spriggs and Bill Sanders were on opposite sides of the issue. Spriggs, a member of the church, supports the building plans. Sanders, who attended the church while a boy in the 1950s, voted against the church's plans and in favor of the historic designation.