Texas city threatens to take church property through eminent domain

Every time an eminent domain story crops up I can feel my jaw tightening, not because there’s never a case where the Takings Clause has to be employed, but because so many of these situations seem entirely preventable. The one that just cropped up in Duncanville, Texas, however, is a bit complicated, to say the least. The startling part of the headline is the fact that the property slated to be taken belongs to a church, setting us up for what at first may look like a collision between the First and Fifth Amendments. The house of worship in question is the Canaan Baptist Church and they’re preparing to fight to stop the city from absorbing their property. But before we break out the protest signs and march down there, I should point out that the property in question isn’t the church itself. It’s an empty lot they own where they’ve been planning to build a new facility. (CBS Dallas-Ft. Worth)

A small North Texas church is fighting back as the city of Duncanville attempts to seize their property using eminent domain.

“This is an empty lot that God gave us,” said Angie Baker, wife of the pastor at Canaan Baptist Church.

The church has big dreams for the property on West Camp Wisdom Road in Duncanville. They have been raising money to build a new facility there for their congregation.

Canaan Baptist’s current home is in south Dallas, but over the past 15 years, the church has created a ministry in Duncanville – even without a building.

Canaan Baptist already has an active congregation in Duncanville, even without a building in which to hold services. Pastor Baker, who oversees the flock, has mobilized his congregation to hold food drives and clothing distribution for the poor, along with other functions normally provided by churches. And they’re close to having enough money to begin construction on the site.

The city is looking to take the property for the construction of a new fire station. That’s obviously a case of “public use” so Duncanville is clearly talking about an appropriate use of the Takings Clause. But do they really need to take the land from a church?

There are two factors complicating this case before it even gets out of the gate. The first is the existence of the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That law forbids the government from any actions that would “substantially burden the practice of religion.” Preventing a group from building a church certainly seems like a substantial burden, but at the same time, the Constitutional validity of the Takings Clause is equally clear. There is no exception in it for religious groups.

But here’s the other curious issue. If you take a look at the map of the portion of Duncanville in question, you’ll see something odd. The building directly across the road from the church’s land is… (wait for it…) a Duncanville Fire Department fire station. So the city is looking to build a new fire station directly across from the old one they plan to replace.

Attorneys for the church are claiming that under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the city must prove that there is no other property available where they could put the new fire station. That claim is being challenged by the city. But this sounds like one of those situations where a compromise could be worked out so there isn’t some horrible Freedom of Religion war playing out. Since the two properties in question are literally a stone’s throw from each other, perhaps Duncanville could offer to trade one property for the other? Once the new fire station is finished, they could give the old one to the church and perhaps even help with the cost of retrofitting the old fire station to suit their purposes. Wouldn’t that be a more pleasant solution all the way around, rather than battling this out in court for years to come?