Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Jul/17

18

Nuns, a Pipeline and Religious Liberty – or Privilege

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Well, here’s something for everyone: Pipelines, eminent domain, nuns, ‘religious liberty’ or (take your pick) religious privilege.

As the Washington Post explains the story, an energy company (Williams Cos) wants to run a natural gas pipeline through agricultural land owned by an order of nuns, one of whom, explains the Post’s writer, “has always known this land as sacred”.

I’ll let that comment stand there.

What Williams does is pay for an easement to dig up the land and put a pipe in. It then hands back the land to its owners. According to the company’s spokesman, it will compensate farmers for lost crops and will return to inspect whether agricultural output over the pipeline returns to normal.

The nuns are opposed to the project. According to one of their number they “believe in sustenance of all creation.”

No matter that, compared with most fossil fuels, natural gas is associated with relatively low CO2 emissions. And no matter (I’m making a guess, but not, I suspect, an unreasonable one) that the nuns make use, directly or indirectly, of fossil fuels themselves.

The Washington Post:

The pipeline company first sought without success to negotiate with the nuns. Now as Williams Cos. tries to seize the land by eminent domain, the order is gearing up for a fight in the courtroom — and a possible fight in the field, as well.

There, smack in the path of the planned pipeline, the nuns have dedicated a new outdoor chapel.

“We just wanted to symbolize, really, what is already there: This is holy ground,” said Sister Janet McCann, a member of the national leadership team of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, whose 2,000 nuns around the world have made environmental protection and activism a key part of their mission.

The sisters’ chapel is a rudimentary symbol, but a powerful one: eight long benches, a wooden arbor and a pulpit, all on a straw-coated patch of land carved out of the cornfield.

I am no great fan of eminent domain (even if it is sometimes necessary), but the key question here is whether a makeshift chapel (built primarily as a legal device) and claims that this piece of Pennsylvania is ‘holy land’ should give these nuns a privilege denied almost everyone else – an exemption from the law.

The Washington Post

The Adorers and their supporters’ nascent faith-based resistance, which has been compared to the anti-pipeline activism led by Native Americans at Standing Rock, N.D., could eventually set a precedent in a murky area of religious freedom law.

U.S. appeals court judges have ruled inconsistently on whether federal law protects religious groups from eminent domain in such cases. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, which covers Delaware, New Jersey and the part of Pennsylvania where the nuns reside, has yet to issue a ruling on the matter. Legal observers say a case could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“There is something to this ‘holy land’ thing,” said Dan Dalton, a Michigan land-use and zoning attorney and the author of a book on the litigation of religious land-use cases. “There haven’t been a lot of appellate cases. . . . It really is a relatively new issue.”

… In a complaint they filed in federal court Friday, the nuns argued that FERC’s authorization of the pipeline on their property violated their religious freedom, protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“FERC’s decision to force the Adorers to use land they own to accommodate a fossil fuel pipeline is antithetical to the deeply held religious beliefs and convictions of the Adorers. It places a substantial burden on the Adorers’ exercise of religion,” the nuns’ attorneys wrote.

Another federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, could more specifically protect the nuns, depending on a judge’s interpretation. That law seeks to shield religious institutions from land-use laws that would otherwise impose a substantial burden on their religious exercise. But the nation’s appellate courts have offered differing opinions on whether the law applies to eminent domain. The 3rd Circuit, where the Adorers are located, has never ruled on that question, several lawyers familiar with this area of law said, so the nuns may be the ones to set the precedent.

This will be a  story to watch.

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