When Long Beach, Calif., announced its plans in March 2006 to seize and bulldoze the Filipino Baptist Fellowship, a vibrant congregation in the heart of Southern California, to make way for condominiums, congregation member Jovine Agustine said, “Every day, the young kids pray that this church would not fall.”
The children got their wish—and the Church got justice, as the City finally scrapped its condemnation plans in response to overwhelming public outcry and pending legal action. Prevailing against a land-hungry developer teaming up with tax-hungry city officials, all of whom sought to condemn the house of worship on the grounds that it did not generate enough taxes for the City, the Church reigned victorious in a case that no doubt will show eminent domain abusers nationwide how much Americans oppose eminent domain for private profit.
“They revoked their condemnation authority,” said John C. Eastman, Director of the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Claremont Institute and lead attorney for Filipino Baptist. “This means that at least for now, the matter is over.”
On March 13, the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency approved the use of eminent domain to acquire the church and replace it with high-end condominiums. Having already designated the area in which the church is located as “blighted,” the City moved forward with escalating threats of eminent domain in an effort to scare the church into selling.
Pastor Roem Agustine said, “We’re just resting on the promise of the Lord that he will not leave us nor forsake us.” Instead of selling, the congregation decided to launch a legal and political battle, garnering local and national media attention immediately.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court’s now infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London permitted the use of eminent domain for economic development as a valid “public use” as long as the proposed condemnation simply presented the possibility of increased tax-revenue or job-growth. Since then, a number of religious leaders have found the government and its wrecking ball at their doorsteps—capitalizing on the fact that churches (and all non-profits) are tax-exempt.
In response to overwhelming public outcry, the City’s redevelopment authorities decided in a closed meeting to back down from their threats of condemnation, voting on March 27, 2006, to adopt a motion terminating negotiations with the Church. After further confirmation, Eastman said that this binds the City to the position that it no longer has the authority to condemn the Church for this redevelopment project—meaning the Church is safe for now.
However, Filipino Baptist remains in the City’s designated redevelopment area, where numerous homes, small businesses and other houses of worship remain at risk of eminent domain abuse. The Church itself can be condemned if the City once again initiates its public procedures for condemnation from scratch. While this seems unlikely given the City’s recent stand, the only sure protection for houses of worship, non-profits and perfectly fine homes and small businesses remains legislative reform.
This situation underscores just how important it is for Long Beach to pass a local ordinance prohibiting the private-to-private transfer of land through the use of eminent domain. It is also crucial for California to reform its statewide eminent domain laws, which allow for ordinary neighborhoods such as this community in Long Beach to be designated as “blighted” and therefore subject to condemnation.