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Court Decision Worries Churches

Kelo puts religious property at risk.
2005This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

While many legal analysts say that a Supreme Court ruling broadening the definition of eminent domain will primarily hurt the poor, Christian churches may face an increased risk of having their property seized by local government.

Lawyers for religious organizations sharply criticized the high court's June 23 decision in Kelo v. New London. The Court ruled that a Connecticut town could condemn private homes to promote primarily commercial interests, not for what has traditionally been known as public use, such as the construction of a freeway.

"City governments will be emboldened to some extent by the Court's decision, and may begin to target church properties," Richard Hammar, editor of Church Law and Tax Report, told CT.

Derek Gaubatz, director of litigation for the Becket Fund, concurred. "It is not an idle concern," Gaubatz said. Because of their tax-exempt status, churches "will be in the crosshairs" of local governments seeking more tax revenue, he said.

Some lawyers, however, cautioned that churches retain advantages that businesses and individuals do not. Among those advantages are the First Amendment's guarantee of religious liberty and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The 2000 law bars governments from restricting houses of worship without a compelling interest.

Even so, the high court's controversial Kelo decision has sparked something of a backlash around the country. Legislators in 26 states responded by writing legislation or announcing plans to do so, according to the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based property-rights group. In addition, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas sponsored a bill that already has 26 Senate cosponsors. The bill, S. 1313, would prohibit such transfers ...

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