Religious institutions may be more vulnerable to takeover through eminent domain after Thursday's (June 23) Supreme Court ruling that gives local governments greater power to seize properties for private economic development, according to some religious and civil rights advocacy groups.
Churches, mosques, synagogues and other nonprofit religious entities are considered especially at threat because they generate no tax revenue for cities, while developments like hotels or shopping malls are seen to be economic boons for urban renewal projects.
"Because all houses of worship are tax-exempt, they will continue to be attractive targets for seizure by revenue-hungry local governments," said Jared Leland, media and legal counsel of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The Becket Fund is a nonprofit, interfaith legal organization that advocates for the free expression of religion.
The Becket Fund, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rutherford Institute and many other groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of seven residents of New London, Conn., who were fighting the city's decision to raze their homes to allow private developers to build a commercial complex.
Leland warned that taking land and property strictly for economic interests is a dangerous slippery slope, and said religious organizations threatened by this decision offer communities services and aid that are immeasurable by monetary standards.
"Religion is something that may not have an economic impact on communities, but does have a tremendous social impact on communities." Leland said. "Religious institutions should be welcomed and protected in the land-use matter."
John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, said public furor may protect some religious institutions from takeovers, but warned they still will be vulnerable.
"If push comes to shove, churches, synagogues and anyone who they don't consider tax-generating entities will come under this," Whitehead said.
The Rutherford Institute is a nonprofit, civil liberties legal organization.
The close 5-4 decision in Kelo et al v. City of New London was made citing rights given to municipalities by the Fifth Amendment, which allows them to seize private properties for public use, in exchange for just compensation to the owner.
The high court said economic development, especially in blighted areas, is an appropriate "public use" rationale for seizing property.
Leland said although the ruling removes the added protection of the Fifth amendment for fighting eminent domain cases, his organization will continue to fight for the rights of citizens and places of worship.
"The First Amendment and federal law will continue to be the shoulder to lean on for religious institutions," Leland said.
In addition, White noted that the ruling may not have the final say in eminent domain cases, since the ruling allows state legislatures to pass laws restricting this type of land seizure.
He said he hopes that religious institutions will use their organizing powers to protect themselves and help homeowners facing situations like the New London residents.
"The less fortunate are vulnerable and that's what Christians should be concerned about," Whitehead said. "The churches can fight back; small land owners and families can't."
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The decision is available from the Supreme Court.
Earlier this year, The Christian Science Monitor reported that churches may be prime targets for eminent domain actions because they don't generate tax revenue.
SCOTUSBlog has more discussion on the ramifications of the case.
Recent eminent domain battles have already had religious aspects to them. California megachurch Cottonwood Christian Center was told by the town of Cyprus to make way for a Costco. (The disagreement was settled out of court.) Meanwhile, Chicago's famous Pacific Garden Mission was embroiled in a long-running battle for its downtown facility. It is relocating.
News elsewhere on the Kelo decision includes:
Justices Rule Cities Can Take Property for Private Development | The Supreme Court ruled today, in one of its most closely watched property rights cases in years, that fostering economic development is an appropriate use of the government's power of eminent domain. (The New York Times, June 23)
Justices affirm property seizures | 5-4 ruling backs forced sales for private development (The Washington Post)
Supreme Court expands power of eminent domain (Los Angeles Times, June 23)
High court okays personal property seizures | Majority: Local officials know how best to help cities (Associated Press)
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