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City of Houston threatens to steal land from decades-old churches using eminent domain

City of Houston threatens to steal land from decades-old churches using eminent domain

Liberty Institute sues the city for violation of Texas’ religious freedom laws

Today’s edition of Why local governments can be the absolute worst takes place in my home breaks. If you haven’t had your coffee yet, this story is enough to get your blood pumping.

Two churches nestled in what used to be one of Houston’s roughest neighborhoods are fighting back against the city. The Latter Day Deliverance Revival Center was established in the fifth ward in 1965 by Bishop Roy Lee Kossie. A few years later, Pastor Quinton Smith began pastoring at the Christian Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, also in the fifth ward. Both churches have grown and have had a positive impact on their community in each year since their establishment. Building a youth ministry center, a church-run food bank, and creating outreach programs for gang members, drug addicts, and alcoholics, the churches continue their work to transform the fifth ward.

“When we moved in to this area, it was considered the highest crime rate area in the city of Houston. People shot first and asked questions later. But we loved these people. We loved this community. We knew this was exactly where we needed to be,” said Kossie.

The fifth ward is located just outside of downtown. Property values in the area have skyrocketed and continue to climb. The City of Houston offered to purchase the churches. When the churches refused, the city came back with threats of using eminent domain to acquire the property as part of an urban development plan.

The Liberty Institute, an organization that has over forty years of experience fighting for religious freedom jumped in to help. Monday, the Liberty Institute filed suit against the City of Houston.

On August 4, 2015, Liberty Institute filed a lawsuit against the City of Houston, asserting that the city is violating Texas’ religious freedom law, including the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They note that the churches have served as pillars in the Fifth Ward’s spiritual and social community for decades and that the City’s actions would force the churches out of the community they have served for over half a century.

Liberty Institute Deputy Chief Counsel Hiram Sasser says, “These churches have served this community for decades. They’ve held the neighborhood together through a lot of hard times. It’s tragic that the City of Houston wants to take the churches’ property away and give it to someone else, just so they can make money. The government cannot take a church’s property and give it to some other business in violation of the law. These churches, their congregations, and this neighborhood are not for sale.”

The suit argues, “HHA’s exercise of eminent domain to condemn the Churches’ properties violates their rights as defined by The Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Texas Constitution. The HHA’s looming condemnation of the Churches’ properties would substantially burden their free exercise of religion. The HHA cannot justify this substantial burden: it lacks a compelling government interest and its plan is not narrowly tailored. Furthermore, the threatened takings are improper as the properties are not intended for “public use” as required by Article 1, Section 17 of the Texas Constitution.”

Neither church is planning to walk away without a fight.

“We’ve been here for years. We’ve watched the children grow up. We’ve been a safe place for them when things are bad at home. If the city makes us leave the Fifth Ward, what will happen to the children? We just want the City to leave us alone so we can keep helping these kids,” said Pastor Smith.

Bishop Kossie added, “This is our home. This is where the Lord called us to serve and this is where we want to stay. We aren’t giving up without a fight.”

If ever there was an example of government at its absolute worst, this is certainly it.

Follow Kemberlee Kaye on Twitter @kemberleekaye

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Comments

Anus Porker, Houston’s mayor, is a “married” lesbian who is term-limited.

This is a lil’ hand-grenade she’s tossing over her shoulder at the black religious community in general for their opposition to her “all sexes poop” bathroom ordinance.

But all the “near-town” wards are prime targets for regentrification and the building of very popular townhomes for hipsters. So there’s bound to be some eGOP hands in this, too.

nordic_prince | August 5, 2015 at 10:17 am

I just bet the city wouldn’t even consider taking the property if they were dealing with mosques instead ~

Sammy Finkelman | August 5, 2015 at 10:40 am

Why local governments are the absolute worst

Caution: You are disputing the Republican catechism!

Local governments are supposed to be the best because they “closest to the people.”

Not really true, of course, especially in a big city.

It would more apt to say:

“You can’t find City Hall”

Although I think Bernie Sanders did that, and won, and became mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He collected issues to take on City Hall with, I think.

    Arminius in reply to Sammy Finkelman. | August 5, 2015 at 8:24 pm

    Yes, Sammy, the Republican catechism has us all singing in universal praise of local government.

    I really can’t say enough nice things about Deroit, Chicago, Baltimore, East St. Louis, Oakland, …

    Republicans worship such places because, local!

    Arminius in reply to Sammy Finkelman. | August 5, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    As a Republican,let me once again congratulate the city of New York for electing such a responsive, dedicated man-of-the-people as Bill de Blasio.

    Aside: it is because of the Republican catechism that the GOP has enthusiastically endorsed the concept of sanctuary cities.

    Because once again, local!

You may disagree with the city’s actions (and in this case should), but this

“Today’s edition of Why local governments are the absolute worst takes place in my home breaks.”

is an absolutely stupid thing to say. Local governments will certainly make bad decisions, but those decisions (and the people who made them) can be replaced. Contrast that with the leviathan that is a federal (or even a large state) government or bureaucracy.

It is just this sort of thoughtless, juvenile twaddle that makes me read LI less and less.

    Juba Doobai! in reply to Anonamom. | August 5, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    Anonamom, these chicks writing for LI are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. If they were, they would neither lead nor conclude with asinine opinions intended to tell us how and what to think about the topic. If they wanted to be smart shapers of opinion, they would begin with a thesis and present the facts to prove it, then offer a rational conclusion based on the facts. Instead, they make assertions at both ends and offer little to no analysis that leads to the concluding assertion. In my classroom, this sort of writing received a poor grade.

    So, have pity on them. They were ill taught.

    baloneyisfree in reply to Anonamom. | August 5, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    I also have to disagree with the statement, “Why local governments are the absolute worst”. I have had to coordinated numerous projects with local, state and federal entities and hands down, I got the best cooperation and results from the local governments. The only exception would have been the District of Columbia which doesn’t know what it is.

Nothing in the suit or the article answers the critical question —

who is the developer behind this?

Of course there is a developer. In any city, village or county, when the government wants to take land for “urban renewal” or “redevelopment” or some such nonsense, there is a developer with deep, deep ties to the local pols who stands to benefit substantially. That developer plans to make a substantial amount of money and needs the land. He doesn’t want to buy it upfront because it costs more and puts the developer’s plan out in the open. Developers don’t like being in the open prior to a big splashy formal announcement, and they certainly don’t want to bid and buy on the open market — derails the profit.

So the key is who the developer is on this “urban development” project. Very likely someone with deep connections to City Hall. Find out who it it and put public pressure on that person — he’s a church-wrecker, after all. That’ll go over big in Texas.

    Valerie in reply to stevewhitemd. | August 5, 2015 at 11:33 am

    Agreed. The answer to the questions “Who?” “How?” and “Why?” are all missing from this story.

      Juba Doobai! in reply to Valerie. | August 5, 2015 at 1:24 pm

      When you want to tell people how and what to think about something, you omit the basics of good writing. This piece is loaded with emotion and light on researched substance to bolster assertions.

      We are old, Valerie. We were taught WWWWWH. Somewhere along the line, younger writers failed to learn that.

It’s hard to stop eminent domain unless there is another statute that protects a property. I’ve done 16 cases here in Illinois and there is almost nothing to protect the property owner. The best you can do is get a more just price for the owner. I almost got the Illinois eminent domain statute declared unconstitutional but I allowed myself to be bought off. My duty to my client was to get him the best price and when they offered it I had to take it although that meant we dropped our appeal. Illinois problem was that they valued the property on the day the eminent domain case was filed. Six years later the case was still going and the property values on State St. and the surrounding area tripled or quadrupled. A 1984 SCOTUS case written by Marshall said in no uncertain terms that the value of property in such cases is on the date the government pays for it and takes control. It was a sure winner. I was bought off to keep the Illinois statute going a little longer although the numbers of inquiries I got from other attorneys told me that many others would be using our argument. The difference in price: offer= $650,000, settlement received=$2.83 million.

Interesting point about that case was that client was the mastermind behind the Purolater robbery, the biggest robbery in the history of Chicago at that time. At the first jury trial, I had the jury convinced on value after tripping up the plaintiff’s experts. We just finished closing arguments and the judge was instructing the jury when my client ran up and slashed his left wrist with a rusty razor. A bloody mess. I couldn’t believe it. Of course, there was a mistrial and I was faced with having to do the trial all over, except now the plaintiff’s experts knew every question I was going to ask and weren’t about to be tripped up again. I told my client that I was going to Home Depot to get a box of a hundred shiny razor sharp razors so that the next time he could do the job right. And I did get him those, but the judge put an end to his antics by barring him from all future trials.

    platypus in reply to faboutlaws. | August 5, 2015 at 11:36 am

    Wow, that is a wild story. But to your main subject – unlevel playing field for eminent domain. My question is (and I haven’t read many legal opinions on this) why can’t the same ‘grandfather’ theories that the railroads use work here? I realize that most of the railroads pre-date the governments that surround them but surely a sizable number of churches do as well.

    It would also seem that the First Amendment adds cumulative support.

      faboutlaws in reply to platypus. | August 5, 2015 at 12:34 pm

      Eminent domain is an ancient power that comes from the absolute right of kings. Its scope has been toned down in modern times and the requirement of paying for the land has been added by the constitution. Under federal eminent domain, the government could take railroad property. There is no grandfather clause that I am aware of that would protect the railroad, but there is a concept called “damage to the remainder” that would dissuade the government. If you take a piece of somebody’s property you not only have to pay the market value of what you took, but if you reduce the market value of what’s left by more than you paid for the piece you took you have to pay for that as well. That damage could run into millions. You use experts to establish the damage and the jury will decide. For example I did 5 cases for a client against the Illinois Tollway, a widening project. The Tollway took a road and about 30 feet of one lot leaving no access to the remainder. We settled for what they took and a 90% damage to the rest. A couple of years after we got the money my client bought a useless strip by a deep detention pond and thus connected the remainder to an accessible alley. On the remainder he built an extension for the neighboring building that had a truck dock leading directly to the alley. He made several hundred thousand on the deal. There was no way the Tollway could ask for the damage money back. heh, heh.

        platypus in reply to faboutlaws. | August 5, 2015 at 8:22 pm

        Thanks for ANOTHER great story. To your response (for which I am grateful), let me say the following. I understand that eminent domain is a subject that our Framers should have realized was a “cat door” for people with “King George” ambitions to get into the house.

        However, here in Tacoma WA, there was a train track that ran through the middle of downtown Tacoma that the city poobahs wanted gone. It took years of negotiating with BNSF to get it to voluntarily agree to swap the land under the tracks for some other land and rights to build somewhere else. I can assure you that if eminent domain was available to use against the railroad, these dirty little govt so-and-sos would have used it and argued later about what it was worth. So I assumed that eminent domain was unavailable to a government that came into being long after the railroad land claim was established.

Keep this bookmarked for the next idiot who says property rights only benefit the rich.

Ah. So this is the payback. I remember when Cruz was sounding the alarm about the subpoenas for the content of sermons and the like… I’m not surprised that wasn’t the end of the subject. A mayor scorned will find a way.

The petition (linked in the story) only has an allegation about “regular” eminent domain law thrown in at the end like an afterthought. The vast majority of the claim is on the basis that this taking will interfere with the churches’ free exercise of religion which, by implication, includes the belief that they can/must practice certain elements of their religion only at this particular place. It alleges that this interference can, under Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Constitution, only be justified if it can be shown to be a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive alternative.

If this works and I’m ever threatened with eminent domain, I’m going to claim that I’m a Neo-Druid who worships a particular tree on my property (not the spirit of the tree or a spirit in the tree, but the tree itself), that if the tree were to die or be destroyed that I would continue to worship the place where the tree stood, who believes that the way and the only way to engage in that worship is to reside and carry out my ordinary daily activities on that property, whose only religious obligations under my beliefs are to only do that, and that my religious beliefs allow me to have those beliefs and to be a Neo-Druid while also having other religious beliefs in non-Neo-Druidic religions or even being an atheist or agnostic.

    jcarter50 in reply to jcarter50. | August 5, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    One clarification: My worship would be of the tree _and_ the exact place where it now stands, not just the tree.

    Ragspierre in reply to jcarter50. | August 5, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    And your cynical BS would be laughed out of court in a heart-beat.

      jcarter50 in reply to Ragspierre. | August 5, 2015 at 5:59 pm

      Oh, if I ever thought that it might ever really be needed, I might want to burnish my case a bit in advance. Maybe some photos of me with arm around my tree while wearing my robes, tending and bowing (or bough-ing ) to it, burning incense in a little brass bowl at its base, that sort of thing, but since the courts have pretty much said that anything anyone wants to sincerely believe as a religious belief has to be regarded as a genuine belief subject to protection, all I’ve got to do is to polish up the proof of sincerity.

Juba Doobai! | August 5, 2015 at 1:07 pm

“The city came back with threats of using eminent domain to acquire the property as part of an urban development plan.” This worked so well with Kelo that it must bear repeating in Houston.

I’m going to hazard that the churches would’ve been replaced with a mosque—especially in light of refusal to disclose who’s behind the move. Black neighborhoods are ripe recruitment grounds for people who build mosques.

TX seems to have a huge problem with Christians. Either this is sudden—the rise of the homosexual contingent in positions of power or the rise of godless atheists, or the influence of Islamic money behind the scenes (it is never wise to underestimate the folly and greed of politicians)—or this has been percolating for a while and TX is closer to being a Democrat state than we think.

Henry Hawkins | August 5, 2015 at 1:24 pm

These churches need to clear out a closet and devote in to a Planned Parenthood office.

If you go to google earth and type in 400 Lyons, Houston, Tx and look at the abandoned properties directly across the street, with a couple of large,empty grassy lots, and the houses on the back end of those lots, you have to wonder what influence is making them select these two well-established churches. The Housing Authority says it is planning on putting up a 63 unit housing complex to replace an apartments damaged by hurricane Ike. That property appears to be about a quarter mile away. Why not demolish that and rebuild? Perhaps because upscale housing is moving into this area and is just a couple of blocks away from the churches. There certainly appears to be some underhanded shenanigans going on.

    gasper in reply to gasper. | August 5, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    should be 4000 Lyons

    genes in reply to gasper. | August 5, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    Can’t have poor people of color around when you want to sell condos to rich libs.

      platypus in reply to genes. | August 5, 2015 at 8:29 pm

      Well, not until you want to rent out those condos for section 8 dollars after you build ’em and sell ’em. Then they will want all sorts of “takers” of any color. But they sure don’t want “people of color” buying those condos and living in them because those people would have stronger rights than mere renters.

The churches have a record of IMPROVING and benefiting the community and city. My argument would be that they already provide more for the city than the unknown, possible benefits that some divisive development might, possibly maybe conceivably, bring to the community.

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