Bulldozing Churches for Mini-malls

Any Houses of Worship Could Be Destroyed Under “Jobs & Taxes” Justification

PRESS RELEASE: March 21, 2006

John Kramer
Lisa Knepper
(703) 682-9320

Arlington, Va.—Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Kelo v. City of New London eminent domain case last summer, City officials have new power to file condemnation actions against churches to make way for private commercial development.  Throughout the nation, more and more religious leaders are finding the government and its wrecking ball at their doorsteps.  Tax-hungry governments teaming up with land-hungry developers are capitalizing on the fact that churches (and all not-for-profits) are tax-exempt, using Kelo to justify taking religious buildings on the grounds that the land can generate more tax revenue or amplify job growth as businesses or homes for the wealthy.

Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, said, “After the Kelo decision, local governments apparently are free to take private property on the theory that generating higher tax revenue is a valid ‘public use’ of property.  This certainly is a substantial threat not only to churches and nonprofit organizations, but to every homeowner whose property could be taken and put to a higher commercial use.  This is bad public policy which cannot be permitted to stand.

Some examples include:

  • Sand Springs, Okla., is attempting to seize and demolish the Centennial Baptist Church—home to a large black congregation—by eminent domain.  The City plans to hand the land over to a private developer to attract major retailers and other stores. “The Lord didn’t send me here to build a mini-mall,” the Rev. Roosevelt Gildon told the New York Times. “I guess saving souls isn’t as important as raking in money for politicians to spend,” said Gildon on National Review Online.
  • In March 2006, Long Beach, Calif., began condemnation proceedings against the Filipino Baptist Fellowship, a vibrant congregation in the heart of Southern California, to make way for condominiums.  The City recently designated the building as “blighted” under California’s vague blight statutes, giving redevelopment officials the power to take the church by eminent domain.  “Every day, the young kids pray that this church would not fall,” said congregation member Jovine Agustine in the Baptist Press.  Pastor Roem Agustine added, “We’re just resting on the promise of the Lord that he will not leave us nor forsake us.”
  • Boynton Beach, Fla., which has already cleared out long-time small businesses and homeowners in the name of redevelopment, voted in October 2005 to take two churches by eminent domain so a private developer can build apartments, stores and parking facilities.  The Jesus House of Worship, which caters specifically to needy families during the holidays, and Triumph the Church & Kingdom of God were included in the City’s redevelopment area, leaving them subject to condemnation at the City’s whim.
  • Scituate, Mass., has wavered since 2004 on whether to take 25 acres belonging to St. Frances X Cabrini Catholic Church for private development.  The Church continues to own its land under the threat of eminent domain.
  • Restoration, a non-denominational church in Visalia, Calif., made a deal with the Main Street Theater to purchase its downtown building for a new worship center in 2004.  While in escrow, the City condemned the property by eminent domain, prohibiting the Church from acquiring the property.  The reasons cited were that the City preferred a private arts center to a place of worship.
  • In 2003, Biloxi, Miss., condemned the parking lot of the Living Waters Ministries, a church on Caillavet Street, to make way for a proposed casino that was never built.
  • Alabaster, Ala., voted to condemn a church in August 2003 for the benefit of Colonial Properties Trust, which planned to build a 400-acre retail development anchored by Wal-Mart.
  • After years of meeting in a rental basement and saving up money, St. Luke’s Pentecostal Church in North Hempstead, N.Y., purchased a permanent home, but it was taken from the church by the North Hempstead Community Development Agency for private retail development.  Six years later, the lot is still empty.

“This is a clear-cut violation the Fifth Amendment’s public use clause,” said IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock, who argued Kelo before the Supreme Court.  “When the government can take somebody’s land based on promises of taxes and jobs, churches are especially at risk because they don’t pay taxes.”

Steven Anderson, coordinator of the Castle Coalition, warned, “We’re seeing more and more minority churches disproportionately affected by eminent domain abuse.”

Since Kelo, legislators in 47 states have passed or are considering legislation to curb the abuse of eminent domain.  The Institute for Justice and Castle Coalition are working with organizations such as the NAACP and the National Council of Churches to protect people’s fundamental right to keep what they already rightfully own.

Bullock concluded, “Legislators should work around the clock to make sure that religious leaders never have to ask what Rev. Gildon already did, ‘And if we can’t move, and they take our building, what happens to the church?  If we leave, who is going to minister to the black community in Sand Springs?’  The ball is in the hands of lawmakers.  Let’s hope they finally do what’s right.”

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