Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

The Abuse of Eminent Domain and the Ten Commandments

Raymond J. Keating

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On the Church and Society
April 5, 2006

Raymond J. KeatingChristianity has its share of leaders far more interested in politics and social activism than in spreading the Gospel. It's as if preaching about sin, and redemption and salvation through Jesus Christ are too mundane, or even worse, politically incorrect.

Over the years, these activist churchmen have stretched and contorted Holy Scripture to fit their political agendas. Recently, this has allowed some leaders in their official church capacities to stake out policy positions on climate change, the minimum wage, immigration, and the federal budget, to name just a few.

Interestingly, though, where Scripture is clear and Christian tradition is unmistakable, and therefore the church has a responsibility to speak out, such as protecting innocent human life by opposing abortion and embryonic stem cell research, many of these church leaders are disturbingly silent.

One should expect to hear a clear message from the church on another hot topic where the Bible is clear, but again silence.

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court decision last June in Kelo v. New London, government abuse of eminent domain powers has been debated in the halls of Congress, in state houses, and in town halls. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declares "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." In the New London case, a slim Supreme Court majority effectively gave politicians a thumbs up to invoke eminent domain for whatever reason they wish. The phrase "public use" now means nothing, or more accurately, means anything politicians want it to mean.

So, the city of New London in Connecticut could use eminent domain to take property from homeowners and small business owners for so-called economic development purposes. But the ills do not stop with this case, of course.

One town on Long Island just used eminent domain to take property from a developer planning to build homes in the name of "farmland preservation." Officials in another Long Island village are kicking around condemning a private golf club so village residents can tee off.

Officials in Birmingham, Alabama, are opposing state efforts to restrict eminent domain powers. At one time, the city threatened to use eminent domain to make way for a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

In Ohio, a university is invoking eminent domain to acquire property where a small business operates in order to build a new athletic complex, parking and student housing.

The list goes on and on. But why should Christian churches care? Two primary reasons.

First, it is a matter of self-preservation. Churches often become condemnation targets, especially under economic development schemes.

In Long Beach, California, the city's Redevelopment Agency Board initiated condemnation proceedings in March against the Filipino Baptist Church, as noted by the Long Beach Press Telegram. However, the agency later backed off, and now claims that the church is no longer targeted.

A church in Visalia, California, was looking to expand, and bought a downtown theater. The city wanted a theater rather than a church, however, and tried to seize the property using eminent domain, according to the Pacific Justice Institute that represents the Restoration Church. Late last month, the city and church came to an agreement to jointly use the facility.

Unfortunately, many churches have not been so lucky as Restoration Church and the Filipino Baptist Church. Christians need to understand the risks that some churches face when government stands ready to abuse its eminent domain powers.

Second, there is the commandment "You shall not steal." (Exodus 20:15) In his "Small Catechism," Martin Luther offered the following regarding this commandment: "We are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbors' money or property...but instead help them to improve and protect theeir property and income."

As far as I know, God offered no exception if government is doing the stealing. And what is abuse of eminent domain, the taking of property against the owner's will and without regard for what the Constitution actually says, but stealing?

"You shall not steal" is pretty straightforward. The church has a responsibility to speak up when it sees that commandment being trampled, even when politicians and government are doing the trampling.

Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.

Copyright Raymond J. Keating

Posted: 06-Apr-06

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