Public Comment

Churches and Proposition 8

By Robert Brokl
Wednesday March 25, 2009 - 06:16:00 PM

As an Oakland-based preservationist, I’ve always been amazed by the political savvy of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA), of which I’m a member. The organization even defeated the gutting of Berkeley’s landmark ordinance in the recent election. 

How then to explain BAHA’s clueless field trip/pilgrimage to the brand new “architectural gem,” Cathedral of Christ the Light, at Lake Merritt on April 3? 

The site itself is preservation sacred ground—where Maybeck’s Herrera Buick Showroom once stood. Its callous demolition sparked Oakland’s nascent preservation stirrings, much like the destruction of Penn Station jump-started a national preservation movement. 

The local diocese’s role in the demolition of two historic Oakland churches and the still unfolding role o the Catholic church in the battle over Prop. 8 cause me to think BAHA’s outing should have been to the reopened Oakland Fox Theater instead. BAHA cabin fever trumping savvy? 

Many of us worked to save the two earthquake-damaged churches, St. Francis de Sales Cathedral and Sacred Heart Church. Sacred Heart was a magnificent Romanesque building, and the congregation resisted mightily its demolition. Attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley took the fight to the Court of Appeal, arguing against the powerful downtown law firm the diocese hired. That stretch of MLK Jr. Way is forever diminished by its removal, and I personally feel the loss every time I pass by, shuddering at the stucco box that replaced it. 

There was less of an organized effort to save de Sales—then (pre-“uptown”) in a hardscrabble part of downtown. Church elders had no interest in continuing the archdiocese’s site there. In both cases, the church leaders invoked their social mission of helping the poor and needy to argue against spending any money to fix their broken buildings. Hard then to explain the tens of millions spent on the new cathedral, which initially had a brand-name architect, Santiago Calatrava, as its chosen designer. His glassy, open concept remained. 

Equally upsetting has been the role of the church in overturning same-sex marriage laws with the passage of Prop. 8. The gay-owned Bay Area Reporter (you can pick it up at the Bowl) has been doing an admirable job following the money trail of prejudice supporting Prop. 8 and examining the role of the Mormon and Catholic churches. The latest March 19 issue details the $1.4 million “Yes on 8” contribution from the tax-exempt 501(c)(8) Knights of Columbus, the largest total contribution from a single organization to the campaign. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops contributed $200,000. The Nov. 9 Chronicle reported the key role Archbishop George Niederhauer played, reaching out to Mormon church leaders he’d met in Salt Lake City to join forces supporting Prop 8. The effect of priests urging a vote for Prop. 8 from the pulpit two days before the election surely was also a factor—exit polls placed Catholic voters in California at 30 percent of all voters, and 64 percent supported Prop. 8. 

To those BAHA members keen to check out the new sparking edifice on the lake (why, according to the NY Times, it’s even an economic development engine partnered with the new Whole Foods!), perhaps they’ll not forget the role church fathers played in demolishing historic churches in Oakland and taking away civil and legal rights of gay couples. 


Robert Brokl is a North Oakland resident.