You probably remember when, last year, the Supreme Court upheld the taking of private land by the state for the purpose of private development in its Kelo decision. Sam Gregg highlighted the decision’s dangerous implications at the time. Religious groups were rightly among those worried about those implications, especially with respect to tax-free urban church properties.
Now, in an ironic twist, Catholic sisters in Philadelphia have been party to an attempt to use eminent domain to gain property for a school.
The effort was turned back by the courts, but the occasion remains disturbing for two reasons. First–and notwithstanding the commentary in the article linked above–the court made its decision not out of a desire to limit the abuse of eminent domain, but out of a concern for separation of church and state. In other words, if this hadn’t been a religious group, it appears that the process would have passed muster with the court.
The second problem is the cooperation of Catholic religious in the scheme. Let me be clear that I wish to cast no aspersions on the sisters’ fine work. The neighborhood would certainly benefit from the institution in question and those attempting to bring it to fruition deserve praise. But one has to question the means. Using government coercion to force a woman out of a home she doesn’t wish to sell is a peculiar way to go about rehabilitating a neighborhood. Catholic social teaching would support educational work in depressed areas, to be sure, but it would object to doing so by violating the property rights of one of the area’s residents. Religious leaders should be in the forefront of the building and rebuilding of strong families, neighborhoods, and cities; but if they ever try to accomplish these goals at the expense of the principles that undergird both human dignity and prosperity, then their actions become counterproductive.