N.Y. Churches Fear Eminent Domain Backlash

Last month's U.S. Supreme Court decision granting broader rights of eminent domain to governments is causing concern in New York's religious community. Some religious leaders worry city leaders may raze their houses of worship to make way for economic development. Jason DeRose reports.

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The Supreme Court ruling last month on eminent domain has worried a lot of property owners. The ruling means that local governments can seize property to spur economic development. Religious leaders are concerned that may mean churches, synagogues and mosques could be razed to make room for shopping malls. NPR's Jason DeRose reports.

JASON DeROSE reporting:

St. Luke's Pentecostal Church in New Cassel, Long Island, isn't what it used to be. In the late 1990s this congregation was 140 strong and had just purchased and was fixing up a new worship space.

(Soundbite of church service)

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) We have come into this house...

DeROSE: But on this Sunday afternoon, only a few dozen smartly dressed women and their children sit on folding metal chairs in the basement of an office building. It's lit by a few fluorescent bulbs. It's a far cry from their old church.

(Soundbite of church service)

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) ...our Lord.

DeROSE: The church's founder, Reverend Fred Jenkins, says the reason for this humble location--the town of North Hempstead in 1998 exercised eminent domain and took the sanctuary as part of plans for a shopping and housing complex. Jenkins says that was a blow to his congregation.

Reverend FRED JENKINS (St. Luke's Pentecostal Church): We'd been feeding people that were hungry and paying for their lights when their lights was out and buying Pampers for their kids when their babies was in need. If you put an apartment building there, nobody in that apartment building would do the same thing for the people that the church will do.

DeROSE: The city offered Jenkins $80,000 for the property, but he refused and now he and North Hempstead are in settlement negotiations. The Supreme Court decision, Kilo vs. New London, essentially OK'd this sort of taking under eminent domain when an area is particularly blighted and when community involvement has been central to the process. That's exactly what happened in North Hempstead, says town supervisor Jon Kaiman.

Mr. JON KAIMAN (Town Supervisor, North Hempstead, Long Island): It's not as if we sit down and say, `Can we take this church?' It's about the property and the location and what's the best use of that property for the entire community. So it's not personal. It's about how to make the entire location, the entire corridor work for everybody.

DeROSE: However, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice Jay Sekulow says the possibility that cities might beef up their tax base by closing down tax-exempt houses of worship has angered people of faith.

Mr. JAY SEKULOW (American Center for Law and Justice): It used to be thought that the reason you gave a tax exemption in real property taxes to a church was because it was giving back something to the community that was worth more, frankly, than the property tax.

Mr. KEVIN HASSON (Chairman, Ecumenical Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty): That was the traditional view. Now, in some places, it's sort of a quaint view.

DeROSE: Kevin Hasson is chairman of the bipartisan Ecumenical Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty.

Mr. HASSON: There are many municipalities across America that think churches are a nuisance--or synagogues or temples or mosques--and are actively trying to keep them out.

DeROSE: Hasson says the argument goes a tax-exempt church or mosque or synagogue on a lot means high property taxes for homes or businesses next door. The real question, says Chicago attorney John Mauck, is whether religious liberty can or should ever be sacrificed for economic redevelopment.

Mr. JOHN MAUCK (Attorney): The ability to have a place to assemble, to come together, is integral to almost every faith. It's fine to say you can believe what you want in your head, but free exercise of religion really involves meeting together.

DeROSE: Those who are worried about what the Supreme Court's eminent domain decision might mean to religious groups say what's needed is either an amendment to existing religious land use law specifically addressing eminent domain or new legislation. Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas is proposing a bill that would protect homes, small businesses, churches and other private property by limiting the use of eminent domain. Jason DeRose, NPR News, Washington.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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