Plans to condemn Southern Baptist church proceed after 6-0 vote for eminent domain
“I had no illusions that we were going to stop the vote, but what was most discouraging yesterday was the utter lack of any evidence on why this was necessary to cure some blighted areas blocks away,” John Eastman, director of The Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence who is defending the church, told Baptist Press. “They didn’t bother to answer that. That was their legal obligation, and they went ahead and condemned a church anyway.”
During the hearing, the redevelopment agency voted to authorize the city attorney to begin condemnation proceedings, Eastman explained. The next step will be for the city attorney to file a complaint to condemn the property, which includes demonstrating that it meets the statutory requirements for condemnation.
Among the requirements is proof that the property seizure is necessary for public use -- based on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2005 regarding eminent domain -- and Eastman said that proof would be rather easy to show since a church is tax-exempt and a housing project would bring in more revenue for the city.
The decision could be challenged in court, and Eastman said he believes city leaders are nervous about the prospects of litigation over the issue.
“They immediately came up to me after the hearing and wanted to have a negotiation meeting,” Eastman said. “I think they’re going to try to offer a very lucrative financing package that would allow the pastor and his congregation to move to another site in town.”
Even so, a financing package does not cure their constitutional defects in taking the property, Eastman noted.
A Long Beach Press Telegram article March 14 quoted the redevelopment agency’s bureau manager as saying the city is offering to pay the church nearly four times as much as the church paid for the property back in 2002. But Eastman disagreed.
“Her math is a little bit off. The city last week came up to $800,000 and change. Before that they’d been offering $540,000, which was only double what they paid for it,” he said. “It’s because the whole area has increased so much in value, proving it’s not blighted, by the way. But the ability to buy a replacement property has also skyrocketed in the meantime. So whatever they’re being offered, it’s less than half of what comparable facilities are going to cost. They don’t have the ability to pay for that.”
Eastman said the Press Telegram also reported that the city has offered the church 13 other properties as possible relocation sites.
“Well, let me tell you about the properties they’ve offered. Most of them were vacant lots,” he told BP. “It’s a little hard to hold a church service in a vacant lot. Several of them were leases, not buildings to own. [The church members] own this one, and they want to have a church that they own so they’re not at the whim of a landlord.
“So you take all those off the table. Almost all of the others were in other parts of the redevelopment area, where they could be forced to move out a couple of years down the road when the city gets around to developing that block,” he added. “I think the pastor’s wife, Jovina, said on the news Sunday night, ‘We’re not gypsies.’”
During the hearing, the assistant director of the redevelopment agency said they would guarantee the church would not be relocated again.
“But she doesn’t have the authority to do that,” Eastman said. “If the city wants to amend their redevelopment plan to exclude the new property from the zone, then that’s a possibility. But that was the first time that was put on the table.”
Some of the alternative sites the city offered the church included a bar and two gas stations. Most of the properties had no parking or less parking than the church has at its current location, and there was no guarantee that the city would give the church a conditional use permit without ensuring the parking was up to code, Eastman said.
“None of these were suitable alternatives because they wouldn’t have been able to have their church,” he said. “Giving you 13 different addresses doesn’t mean they’ve given you 13 different suitable alternatives.”
Filipino Baptist Fellowship began nearly 20 years ago, Eastman said, and they met wherever other churches would let them borrow space for most of that time. Finally, in 2002, they gathered enough money to purchase a building of their own -- their current location. But just as they were closing on the deal, the city put the building in a redevelopment zone.
“They wanted to know what that meant, so they met with the city and the city said, ‘It’s possible that you will be asked to relocate, but we won’t ask you to do that unless we’ve found you another place where you can have your church,’” Eastman said. “So they got that in writing, and then after a couple of years of giving these vacant-lot alternatives, the city said, ‘Well, we’ve tried. We’re not going to help anymore. We’re just going to go ahead and condemn your church.’ And that’s where we are now.”
Eastman said he believes the legal arguments the church has on its side are strong, especially given that in 2002 a U.S. district court ruled on a similar Southern California case, Cottonwood Christian Center v. City of Cypress, saying that the church was protected from eminent domain based on the First and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution as well as under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
“Preventing a church from building a worship site fundamentally inhibits its ability to practice its religion,” Judge David O. Carter wrote in the decision. “Churches are central to the religious exercise of most religions. If Cottonwood could not build a church, it could not exist.”
Eastman said one thing that became “manifestly clear” during the proceedings March 13 is that the city does not consider churches important to revitalization projects.
“They’re taking this church out and there is no provision for churches anywhere in the redevelopment project,” he said. “They think they can revitalize gang areas by kicking out the churches? It just makes no sense.
“One of the people that testified yesterday said, ‘You know, you take a rundown house and you knock it down and you put a nicer house in and you put the same people in it. Unless they’ve got some churches, they’re still going to be gang members,’” he added.
While the church waits to see what further negotiations with the city will yield, Pastor Roem Agustine told Baptist Press he is hopeful about the future.
“We are more united than ever and more focused in our prayers to the Lord,” he said of the congregation.
In some ways, they are heartbroken, he said, but in other ways, they’re not.
“We know that the Lord will not leave us, and we just don’t know what it is that the Lord has laid out before us. But it’s there and we know it’s there. We continue with our prayers and our hopes up, trusting Him. I thank you for your prayers now,” Agustine said.