Maggie Gallagher
Maybe, as the song says, they can pave paradise to put up a parking lot, but can a city grab church land to erect a Costco? Cypress, Calif., apparently thought so.

Quite shamelessly this spring, city officials announced plans to condemn the Cottonwood Christian Center's land because they preferred the taxes Costco would generate to the souls the Cottonwood might save. Last week, in an unprecedented victory for religious liberty and private property, a federal judge stepped in and said to the overweening Cypress city council: Not so fast, buddies.

In an unprecedented federal injunction preventing the city from exercising the power of eminent domain, Judge David Carter affirmed that "Costco wants it" is not a sufficiently compelling state interest to override the First Amendment or the Fifth Amendment. "The framers of the Constitution might be surprised to learn that the power of eminent domain was being used to turn the property over to a private discount retail corporation," he noted wryly. As Kevin J. Hasson, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (who argued the case personally) summed up afterwards: "(M)ost cities know better than to seize a house of worship's property. Cypress made a big mistake, and we hope that cities across the country learn from their mistake."

The judge's decision leaves the Cypress city officials, who acted as if they owned the place, with serious egg on their faces. The judge swatted down the two reasons city lawyers offered to defend seizing church property: How can a city with a 25 percent budget surplus claim it cannot get along without the tax revenues? The city's other claim -- that the land was officially designated a blighted area -- was equally absurd: "Assuming that removing the blight from the Cottonwood property was a compelling state interest, the city could eliminate the blight simply by allowing Cottonwood to build its church," Judge Carter riposted. An attractive worship complex (in an area zoned for churches) with day-care center, meeting rooms, youth gym, coffee shop and bookstore is not exactly a slum. Surely Cypress city officials do not need a federal judge to tell them churches are not a blight upon the land?

Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.