Eminent domain ruling puts churches at risk
August 9, 2005
A friend asked me recently if the July 23 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, giving local governments greater power to seize properties for private economic development by declaring eminent domain, could impact Missouri Baptist churches.
Unfortunately, my answer was yes.
Churches and other nonprofit religious entities – like the Salvation Army – are especially at risk because they provide no local tax revenue. Conversely casinos, hotels and shopping malls do, often becoming the cornerstone of urban renewal projects. Too frequently local government officials overlook – or ignore – the fact that churches and religious organizations offer community services and aid that are immeasurable by monetary standards. Churches may have minimal economic impact on communities, but their social impact is tremendous.
For example, Southern Baptist donations to disaster relief efforts – through the Cooperative Program – have made the Southern Baptist Convention the second-largest relief organization in America, second only to the Red Cross. When the Red Cross entered Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, it was Southern Baptist relief workers – including some from the Missouri Baptist Convention – who provided the Red Cross with food to deliver to survivors and rescue workers. In 2004, Southern Baptist disaster relief set new records for meals (preparing more than 3.5 million) and the number of disaster relief units (586) hitting the field. Such units provided aid ranging from building repair and child care to portable showers and water purification to, for example, hurricane-battered Florida and tsunami-devastated Southeast Asia. Ask community leaders in those areas how much the aid was worth.
F.A. Hayek, the noted Austrian School economist, wrote a famous book (at least among conservatives), The Road to Serfdom (1944). Hayek argued that central planning of the economy can often lead to totalitarianism. Government’s role, whether the judicial, executive or legislative branch, is to promote liberty, not plan progress.
America’s Founding Fathers affirmed that citizens must have rights to property – an essential aspect of a free society. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Adams were particularly concerned about a property-grabbing government. Consider Adams’ warning: “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.”
There is another important aspect to the Supreme Court’s eminent domain ruling that goes beyond the relationship between property ownership and liberty. Does it not constitute a First Amendment violation, much less a breach of the left’s sacred, but mythical “wall of separation between church and state?” Moreover, how does this affect personal liberty and its relationship to religion?
M. Stanton Evans, expressed the answer beautifully in his 1994 book, The Theme Is Freedom, noting that if our ethical system “supports the idea of political liberty … then it must support as well the material factors by which that liberty can gain expression.” For example, to argue that freedom of religion is sanctioned by the Western ethic, but that the material elements needed to practice one’s religion are not, is a hopeless contradiction. As Stanton noted, “The first is conditioned on the second, and to approve of one entails approval of the other. So likewise, with all First Amendment liberties that have an economic basis.” Jared Leland, media and legal counsel of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit, interfaith legal organization that advocates for the free expression of religion, said the First Amendment and federal law will “continue to be the shoulder to lean on for religious institutions” threatened by the Supreme Court’s eminent domain ruling.
Despite the ominous outlook for churches, there is hope.
One part of the ruling seems to have been ignored by the liberal news media. The ruling allows state legislatures to pass laws restricting land seizure by eminent domain. This has sent governors and lawmakers scrambling to examine their existing eminent domain laws.
In Missouri, for example, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt wasted little time in expressing his dismay over the court’s ruling, appointing a nine-member task force to recommend ways Missouri can prevent or, at least, make unlikely municipal governments’ seizure of private land for private development. The task force’s report is due Dec. 31, in time for the General Assembly to act, if necessary, when it convenes in January.
Other states are acting similarly. Alabama became the first state to enact new protections against local government seizure of property. Republican Gov. Bob Riley signed a bill Aug. 3 that passed unanimously by a special session of the Alabama Legislature, which prohibits government from using eminent domain authority to take privately owned properties for the purpose of turning them over to retail, industrial, office or residential developers. In addition, legislation to ban or restrict the use of eminent domain for private development has been – or will be – introduced in 26 other states.
Churches and other religious institutions must use their organizing powers so their voices are heard as states craft new eminent domain laws. Additionally, the church must speak out on this issue in behalf of the less fortunate. Churches can fight back, but small landowners and poor families cannot.
The church is endangered by an ever-intrusive federal government threatening its liberty. If the church succumbs, the outcome could be a diminished witness to a nation in desperate need of a Savior. That raises the stakes even higher.