The Catholic nuns of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ in West Hempfield, PA, have built an open air chapel on their land as a last effort to stop a company from building a natural gas pipeline on their property. From Philly.com:

A federal judge agreed this month that the pipeline’s parent company, Williams Partners, can condemn a portion of the order’s property for an easement. A hearing in U.S. District Court of the Eastern District in Reading is scheduled for Monday morning.

So erecting the arbor is a sort of dare to Williams to rip it down. The sisters cannot call it a chapel because it has not been consecrated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg. But their quest has drawn national attention.

“It exploits the land to make a profit,” Sister Bernice says of the pipeline.

“Holy Land” Claims a Somewhat New Thing

Dan Dalton, a land-use and zoning attorney based in Michigan, told The Washington Post that the courts haven’t seen many cases on “holy lands.” WaPo also noted that judges on U.S. appeals courts “have ruled inconsistently on whether federal law protects religious groups from eminent domain.

The nuns of this order, which formed in the 1920s, “have made environmental protection and activism a key part of their mission.” Since its beginning, the order “has acquired nearly 100 surrounding acres over the years,” which includes “a home for the elderly.

Activists have said that the system doesn’t really allow landowners to say no:

Federal law gives energy companies the right to seize property through eminent domain once the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has signed off on the project. The Adorers, who also sponsor a nursing home near the field, are among fewer than 30 landowners who have not signed agreements with the company, leading to eminent-domain proceedings, Stockton said.

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.

The nuns may have protection under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 “depending on a judge’s interpretation.” The Post reported:

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.

The Pipeline

The nuns have agreed to “conduct their business transactions in keeping with the principles of ecological justice the sisters drafted in 2005, known as their ‘land ethic.'” They turned to this agreement when a surveyor from Williams Partners, the company that wants to build the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, came to speak with them. The nuns told him “that they couldn’t even discuss it.” The Post continued:

Christopher Stockton, a spokesman for Williams, says that at that point the company was willing to negotiate on where it drew the path of its pipeline, which will carry the natural gas that has been gushing out of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale region since extraction by fracking was authorized in the state.

The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline will connect with the company’s Transco pipeline, which carries gas north from the Gulf of Mexico to East Coast markets, to transport Pennsylvania gas to other states.

“It’s an important project,” Stockton said. “Since the advent of shale discoveries, now Pennsylvania produces the second-most natural gas in the country behind Texas. What’s happened is you don’t have the infrastructure in place to connect those supply areas with market areas. . . . Now they’ll have access to Pennsylvania natural gas.”

Stockton said the company wants to limit impacts, which is why the company always wants to sit down with the landowners. The sisters won’t even “sit down for a conversation.”

Stockton reminded the sisters that the pipeline “will run about three to five feet underground and topsoil will be replaced,” which means the nuns can still use the land for farming.