MELROSE, Minnesota — A group of parishioners trying to save a historic church in central Minnesota has lost an appeal.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has rejected an attempt by members of the Catholic Church of St. Mary in Melrose to save the 118-year-old structure.

An arson fire heavily damaged the church in 2016 and the Diocese of St. Cloud eventually decided to demolish it and build a new one. The St. Cloud Times reports a group called Friends to Restore St. Mary’s sued the parish, the diocese and Bishop Donald Kettler, arguing that the church is a natural resource and cannot be demolished under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act.

A lower court ruled the diocese has the right to decide internal matters. On Tuesday, the appeals court agreed.

The court acknowledged “that the loss of this beautiful, old, treasured church building is, and will continue to be, keenly felt,” but added “there are no feasible and prudent alternatives to demolishing the church building. It cannot be resolved without disturbing a ruling of the governing ecclesiastical body with respect to issues of doctrine, interfering with an internal decision that affects the faith and mission of the church, and fostering excessive governmental entanglement with religion.”

Martin Melang, an attorney representing Friends to Restore St. Mary’s, told MPR they were “disappointed” with the decision.

“We believe that the court did make a mistake, and that the church and diocese and the bishop never really set forth an ecclesiastical basis for the demolition of the church building,” he said.

Crux staff contributed to this report.

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