Houston is trying to seize two churches through eminent domain for tax money. The churches are in Houston’s infamous fifth ward and Kemberlee Kaye at Legal Insurrection points out why the churches matter.

The Latter Day Deliverance Revival Center was established in the fifth ward in 1965 by Bishop Roy Lee Kossie. A few years later, Pastor Quinton Smith began pastoring at the Christian Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, also in the fifth ward. Both churches have grown and have had a positive impact on their community in each year since their establishment. Building a youth ministry center, a church-run food bank, and creating outreach programs for gang members, drug addicts, and alcoholics, the churches continue their work to transform the fifth ward.

Liberty Institute also has a short video on what the city is trying to do.

This is just absolutely horrible and a gross overreach in government. Thankfully, Liberty Institute is helping the churches by suing the city. Here’s part of Liberty Institute’s long list of why Houston is wrong.

The HHA’s looming condemnation of the Churches’ properties would substantially burden their free exercise of religion. The HHA cannot justify this substantial burden: it lacks a compelling government interest and its plan is not narrowly tailored. Furthermore, the threatened takings are improper as the properties are not intended for “public use” as required by Article 1, Section 17 of the Texas Constitution.

The seizure is also against Title 10, Subtitle E, Chapter 2206 of the Texas Government Code.

(b) A governmental or private entity may not take private property through the use of eminent domain if the taking:
(3) is for economic development purposes, unless the economic development is a secondary purpose resulting from municipal community development or municipal urban renewal activities to eliminate an existing affirmative harm on society from slum or blighted areas…
(4) is not for a public use.
(b-1) Subsection (b)(3) does not prohibit the taking of private property through the use of eminent domain for economic development purposes if the economic development is a secondary purpose resulting from the elimination of urban blight…

There is no way the city of Houston can prove seizing the churches would eliminate an affirmative harm on society. Fifth Ward is notorious for its crime, but these churches aren’t part of it. If anything, they should be praised for their willingness to stick it out, expand, and help people. There’s also no way Houston can claim the economic development is a secondary purpose resulting from getting rid of urban blight. Houston Housing Authority CEO and president Tory Gunsolley admitted to Houston Chronicle it was for housing.

We are trying to build decent, safe, affordable, but modern housing.

The thing that doesn’t make sense is why Houston wants the housing there. A map of the area shows there’s already an apartment complex next to the church. There’s also a library a little bit to the south. I’m all for free markets and people making as much money as they want. But I’m also in favor of private property rights. If someone doesn’t want to sell their property, they shouldn’t have to sell it. What Houston is doing is just theft. There’s no other way to describe it. Not that the government has ever been dissuaded from trying to take things it didn’t own. Jason Pye at FreedomWorks points out how the 2005 Kelo v. New London decision made it easier for governments to seize property.

In the majority opinion, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Supreme Court redefined “public use” to include the taking of private property for economic development, relying in part on past cases, Berman v. Parker (1954) and Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff (1984). “Promoting economic development is a traditional and long accepted governmental function,” Stevens wrote, “and there is no principled way of distinguishing it from the other public purposes the Court has recognized.”

What’s interesting is Texas’ current law on eminent domain was passed in 2011 after, and in response to, the Kelo decision. It was also passed in response to the (thankfully) failed Trans-Texas Corridor. Texans aren’t interested in government trying to grab up their land. They started fighting back, got enough people elected into office which agreed with them, and actually forced then-Governor Rick Perry to accept the new law. Sometimes you have to fight (and win elections) to get the government to change. Thankfully, that’s what the churches and Liberty Institute are doing.

The eminent domain attempt isn’t just about money, it’s also a violation of the right to peacefully assemble and the free exercise of religion. From the suit.

Community engagement is central to the faith of Latter Day and Christian Fellowship’s respective congregations, and exercise of eminent domain would burden their exercise of their faith. Condemnation would limit Latter Day’s growth and its congregants’ ability to worship and minister to the community. Furthermore, condemnation would fully displace Christian Fellowship from its only property in the community…Moreover, the HHA’s exercise of eminent domain would effectively end Latter Day’s current outdoor ministries and curb plans for future growth. Condemnation of the Churches’ properties would truncate their prospective ability to engage in community development through faith. “Preventing a church from building a worship site fundamentally inhibits its ability to practice its religion.” Cottonwood Christian Ctr. v. Cypress Redevelopment Agency, 218 F. Supp. 2d 1203, 1226 (C.D. Cal. 2002). The Churches’ animating goal is to integrate with their community. Shuttering one of the community’s access points to the Churches is thus a double burden on their free exercise.

This is a big opportunity for conservatives and libertarians to show why their philosophy matters to everyone, not just old, white guys. The churches are saying, “We just want to be left alone.” What political group is interested in that? Doesn’t the Right want the same thing? Doesn’t the Right want people to be able to own their own land and do on it what they please as long as they aren’t hurting anyone? What Houston is trying to do is theft. Thankfully, people are standing up against it.