Thursday, April 12, 2007

Grassroots groups fight land grabs

Grassroots groups fight land grabs
Revised confiscations being battled by churches, homeowners nationwide

World Net Daily | August 17 2006

Like popcorn spilling over, the cases of abuse of eminent domain have been multiplying ever since the U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that it is okay to confiscate property from one private owner and give it to another to redevelop.

Now, however, a cleanup move has begun. It will be highlighted at a conference in Chicago this weekend, where the Americans for Limited Government will feature speakers including Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., National Taxpayers Union chief John Berthoud, Rev. Roosevelt Gildon Jr. of the new group called Protect Our Homes and Churches and Susan Kelo, the plaintiff in the high court's Kelo V. New London case.

The Kelo case concluded with the U.S. Supreme Court allowing governments to use the power of eminent domain to seize private homes, schools or churches – and then give those assets away to a developer to build a casino, resort or apartment building.

The 2006 Action Conference, at Chicago's Intercontinental Hotel starting Thursday, will bring activists, campaign veterans and others to talk about strategies for making a more limited and accountable government reality.

It's already starting to happen, with organizations at the local and state level assembling all across the country – Arizona, California, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Washington just to start.

Gildon's group, Protect Our Homes and Churches, is relatively new, being supported in its startup by Americans for Limited Government.

Gildon is an expert in the area, having – so far – battled back against a redevelopment plan by the city of Sand Springs, Okla., that would have demolished the seven-year-old building used by Centennial Baptist Church.

He's had help from ALG as well as the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and so far, the church has lost a parking lot but also has seen other demolition and construction work go on around its worship facility.

"Now the city has backed off," Heather Wilhelm, a spokeswoman with ALG, told WorldNetDaily. "We're very, very happy."

But she said the church's pastor is concerned because "he knows this is happening to other churches across the country."

Another case was developing in Long Beach, Calif., where bulldozers have retreated at least temporarily from the front door of Filipino Baptist Fellowship Church.

Sand Springs' goal was a strip shopping center that did cost people their homes, and two other church structures whose members had agreed to a buyout.

"It turns out that one of the churches that made a deal with the city is about to be evicted, and they have no place to go," Wilhelm said. "That's what can happen."

"Most of the time the victims are the kind of people who don’t have the resources to fight back."

Wilhelm said the course is clear, but long and arduous. At least the eight states listed – Arizona, California, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Washington – already have coalitions assembling ballot initiatives that would redefine eminent domain to prevent governments from taking private property just to transfer it to another private owner.

The original use of eminent domain – taking property for public facilities such as roads – would remain.

The weight of court opinion also seems to be shifting, although a retraction of the Kelo opinion could take years to accomplish. Just last month the Ohio Supreme Court ruled unanimously that cities may not use eminent domain powers to take private property if the only purpose is "economic development."

The court said because property rights were believed "to be derived fundamentally from a higher authority and natural law," they are "so sacred that they could not be entrusted lightly to the uncertain virtue of those who govern."

The opinion said the right to hold property "existed independently of and before (constitutional) recognition, and which no government can destroy."

The Becket Fund's brief in that case had noted that churches are economically vulnerable because they are tax-exempt, and local governments "will always be particularly eager to replace properties with for-profit, tax-generating businesses."

"The U.S. Supreme Court is not as wise as Ohio's Supreme Court on the issue," said Jared N. Leland, legal counsel for The Becket Fund.

Those who are battling the precedent note that religious exercise is "virtually impossible" without a physical house of worship. But contemporary planning styles exclude churches from downtown areas because they don't attract traffic and generate taxes, from residential areas for creating too much traffic, and from agricultural and other areas for being "incompatible."

The Becket Fund also is working on its "Sacred Spaces" project to raise awareness of the fundamental rights that are being threatened. It also argues cases under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, signed by President Clinton, which protects those who want to use land owned by religious organizations from discrimination and excessive burdens.

The Becket Fund was the group that last winter wrote the City of Sand Springs on behalf of Centennial Baptist, noting the church property was not, is not, and will not be for sale "and any attempt by the City to seize the Church's property through eminent domain will be challenged by immediate legal action."

Gildon also is involved with gathering signatures for the "Protect Our Homes" initiative in Oklahoma, which also is slated to appear on the November ballot.

WND's acclaimed Whistleblower magazine devoted its April edition to "THE END OF PRIVATE PROPERTY." The investigate report takes readers on a jarring visit to America – a land where bureaucrats can decide to take away your home and give it to someone else – for no other reason than that it will result in higher tax revenues.

The magazine reports that in America today more than 10,000 properties have been condemned or threatened with condemnation, solely for the benefit of private parties.

Susan Kelo was among several residents of New London, Conn., who sued after city officials announced plans to destroy their homes, and instead give the land to a developer who wanted a riverfront hotel and health club.

In the Supreme Court's opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor disagreed with the majority, saying the result of the decision will be that beneficiaries will be "citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process."

Justice John Paul Stevens' majority opinion noted that the city wanted to raise its tax revenue.

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