What is a sanctuary?

wrecking ballLast year the Supreme Court issued a wildly unpopular decision that enabled governments to seize property for no other reason than economic development. A recent New York Times article says that almost every state legislature in the country is advancing bills or constitutional amendments to limit the spread of this ruling. Despite the tenuous legal state that the ruling (Kelo v. New London) is in, a Long Beach, Calif., government is using it to replace a church with an apartment complex. Sigh.

The Long Beach Redevelopment Agency voted 6-0 March 13 to condemn the Filipino Baptist Fellowship’s church building, ostensibly because it does not produce enough economic benefit for the city.

Because the Filipino Baptist Fellowship is just one of eight churches that governments are currently using eminent domain against, I wish that reporters were all over this. Unfortunately, it seems that print coverage has been more or less limited. Let’s look at how the Associated Press characterized the issue which, I’ll note, was very similar to the way the Long Beach Press-Telegram put it:

“We are a church. We are helpless. We have no place to go,” church pastor Roem Agustin said.

But redevelopment agency bureau manager Barbara Kaiser said the church was offered 13 alternative sites and the agency offered to pay for moving costs.

Well, if you’re like me and think that private property owners should have the right to keep their land no matter how much the government wants it for a baseball stadium or condominium developments, it doesn’t matter if the church doesn’t like the government’s offer. And if you’re like me and think this goes double for houses of worship, it really doesn’t matter if the church doesn’t like the government’s offer. But most people would see this and think the church was being unreasonable. Is that the end of the story? Is there any other information readers should have? Baptist Press, which has covered this story well, spoke with the church’s attorney, John Eastman:

“Well, let me tell you about the properties they’ve offered. Most of them were vacant lots,” he told BP. “It’s a little hard to hold a church service in a vacant lot. Several of them were leases, not buildings to own. [The church members] own this one, and they want to have a church that they own so they’re not at the whim of a landlord.

“So you take all those off the table. Almost all of the others were in other parts of the redevelopment area, where they could be forced to move out a couple of years down the road when the city gets around to developing that block,” he added. . . .

Some of the alternative sites the city offered the church included a bar and two gas stations. Most of the properties had no parking or less parking than the church has at its current location, and there was no guarantee that the city would give the church a conditional use permit without ensuring the parking was up to code, Eastman said.

“None of these were suitable alternatives because they wouldn’t have been able to have their church,” he said. “Giving you 13 different addresses doesn’t mean they’ve given you 13 different suitable alternatives.”

This level of explanation should be available in the wire or local news reports. But, more importantly, this broader story should be getting more coverage.

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  • Andrew

    That is criminal. It is a pretty strong argument for a cultural slide in a increasingly post-Christian United States. On one hand it makes me sad. On the other, perhaps the Church needs to be shaken out of its lethargy.

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  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    In my own blog I suggested this as a possibility–and I hate that I’m proven wrong. What makes churches especially susceptable is that they are given tax breaks as non-profit entities. Therefore, a church that brings in no revenue to the local government isn’t as attractive as an apartment building that can be taxed.

    A related story that was in the “Milwaukee Journal Sentinel” a few years ago was the reluctance of local governments to issue building permits to churches or to rezone land churches wanted to buy. Why? Because the property is taken off the tax rolls.

    In the city of Milwaukee there are many building restrictions. Are they uniformly enforced? No. You see, if you pay a fee you can get a waiver. Of course this fee is paid yearly and is based on the value of the property. My church is looking into adding a new entrance with an elevator to enable access for people with handicaps. Of course this means the new addition comes closer to the sidewalk than city code allows. But no problem, we are told, we can have that waived and be assessed an annual fee. At this point the city official noted the church property hadn’t been assessed in a number of years (why? It’s not being taxed so any effort to assess it wouldn’t benefit the city of Milwaukee–unless we build the addition that comes too close to the sidewalk but which can be waived for a fee based on property value….Well, you can see where this is going).

    What has made America great is the principle of property rights. Historically governments were restricted in the seizing of personal property. Unfortunately, “Kelo v. New London” has destroyed a basic civil right we have and Russ Feingold ISN’T upset about this affront to civil liberties!

    All I can say is, I’m glad the church wasn’t seixed to build a Planned Parenthood office or abortion clinic.

  • http://terrenceberres.com Terrence Berres

    “… they want to have a church that they own so they’re not at the whim of a landlord.”

    More likely than whim, they would like to avoid a landlord who would evict them if another tenant comes along who will pay more in rent. Kelo makes the government like everyone’s landlord in this sense.

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  • Roberto

    Breakpoint did a broadcast on this subject after being directed to the issue by the Volokh Conspiracy and Stephen Bainbridge.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Anybody want to place a bet on how long it is before Kelo gets used on a church for political reasons? There’s a pastor in the Seattle suburbs who’s been very outspoken on gay issues. (You remember him, the one who wanted to boycott Microsoft.) How much do you think the gay activist groups would like to see his church Kelo‘ed? And in Seattle’s blue-state-squared environment, how hard do you think it would be to push through?

  • Michael

    It would likely be done at the behest of corporate interests, since governments do this to meet the demands of large corporatations. Fear more for politicians predisposed to corporate interests than politicians looking to score cultural points.

  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As a Catholic I would be willing to organize our parishoners to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other Christians whose churches were threatened by what seems an increasingly Stalinist attitude toward religion by many local and state governments. It isn’t only environmentalists and liberals who know how to use their bodies to block bulldozers,
    However, there is so little news coverage on such issues involving religion and eminent domain (or abuse of zoning and permit laws) that I doubt if I would know of a case even in the next town. But if there ever were a situation where the churches should strongly band together this is it.

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