Firehouse, or house of worship?
Religious Liberty | Dallas-area church fights to keep its land
by Steve West
Posted 10/13/20, 12:59 pm
When Pastor Jarvis Baker stands on Canaan Baptist Church’s plot of land in Duncanville, Texas, he doesn’t see just an empty field but a planned sanctuary and activity center. “I believe if your vision is not big enough, it’s not God-ordained,” he said. But an attempt by the city to seize the property puts the plan in danger.
After the 150-member church in the south Dallas suburb refused to sell the land, the city asked a state court for permission to take it to build a fire station. The power of eminent domain allows the government to appropriate private property for public use as long as it pays the owner fairly. Yet as a motion to dismiss filed on Oct. 6 made clear, the church is resolute: “There are many places in the world where governments can take the property of churches without regard to religious liberty, but not in Texas. Not here. Not now.”
The small church’s members sacrificed for five years to raise the funds to buy the property in 2002, Baker said. Then, they paid for the building plans necessary for a special use permit the city approved in 2006. Although the church worships in two small buildings in South Dallas, it regularly uses the property to serve the local community through clothing drives, movie nights, youth activity days, and sometimes worship services.
The church’s motion cites the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Those laws require the government to prove it has a compelling interest before burdening the free exercise of religion, and it must use the least restrictive means possible.
Religious groups typically use the laws to challenge zoning or land use restrictions, but neither contain exemptions for eminent domain proceedings, said Keisha Russell of First Liberty, the law firm representing the church. Canaan Baptist argues the city has other options for a fire station, while this property, situated along a main road in its target community, uniquely meets the church’s needs.
For Baker, who has been in the church since he was an infant nearly 50 years ago, the property is integral to the church’s vision for the community. “We are a church that is committed to the Great Commission and the great commandment, to sharing the gospel and loving our neighbor,” he said. “We believe God has placed us directly on this property and will provide what we need.”
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Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.