- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2006

A Pennsylvania court ruled yesterday that while the government can take away your home to build a parking lot, they can’t do it to build a church.

In a 4-3 ruling, the state appeals court said the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority violated separation of church and state when it seized a woman’s home in 2003 to help the Hope Partnership, a religious group, build a private school in a “blighted” neighborhood.

In the ruling, Judge Doris A. Smith-Ribner wrote for the majority, “The evidence shows that the Hope Partnership designated the land that it wanted and requested the authority to acquire it, and the authority proceeded to do so. This joint effort demonstrates the entanglement between church and state.”

The Hope Partnership is a venture of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and the Sisters of Mercy.

In a dissent, Judge Dan Pellegrini wrote there was no evidence the project was intended to establish a religion, but rather was meant to benefit the residents of a poor neighborhood.

Becket Fund for Religious Freedom President Anthony Picarello told The Washington Times that he also disagrees with the decision. “This may be a problem of eminent domain abuse — taking property from one private owner to resell it to another — but it isn’t an Establishment Clause problem.”

In a contentious 5-4 Supreme Court decision last June, justices upheld a Connecticut lower court’s 58-page ruling, Kelo v. City of New London, that permitted the state to seize private property if the property could be used to serve the greater public interest.

The city’s aim was to use the land as part of a comprehensive redevelopment plan.

A University of New Hampshire poll reported 93 percent of those surveyed say they oppose the taking of private property for economic development reasons, and the issue has ignited passions across the political spectrum.

Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, held hearings last summer to address concerns regarding the Kelo case, and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, joined sides with several Republican senators and the libertarian Alliance for Justice to oppose the ruling. In addition, several states including Pennsylvania say they are exploring how to limit the scope of the Kelo ruling.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the high court’s majority opinion, said “the law compelled a result I would have opposed if I were a legislator.”

New Hampshire resident Logan Darrow Clements and the Committee for the Protection of Natural Rights are leading a campaign to replace Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter’s 200-year-old home, once owned by his grandmother, with a hotel called “The Lost Liberty Hotel,” to demonstrate how the Kelo decision can be used to excess. Judge Souter voted with the majority in the Kelo decision.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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