The Lord giveth, costco taketh away?

Posted: Aug 14, 2002 12:00 AM
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?

What is amazing to me, in looking over the record, is the absolute arrogance of the Cypress aristocracy. Even after Judge Carter's stinging reproach, Cypress Councilman Tim Keenan had the nerve to tell the Los Angeles Times that the council hasn't gotten enough credit for its big-hearted willingness to "take the church into our community, and we are willing to take more than 18 acres off our tax rolls." Apparently he think the right of Americans to worship and associate freely is some magnanimous dispensation granted by the gods of the local zoning board.

Councilmember Anna Piercy also has had problems seeing the light. She told the News-Enterprise in a May 15 story, "They're waging a holy war trying to make it a religious issue, and it's not that." You are telling a church it cannot worship on its own land and that is not a religious issue? "We just don't want them taking our prime development land," she explained. Whose prime development land, Ms. Piercy? This mind-set resonated with at least one Cypress citizen who wrote to the News-Enterprise: "Cypress has more than enough churches now. ... I'm behind you 100 percent. Don't even let that church move into our city."

I am sure most citizens of Cypress reject the notion that local politicians have the right to control what churches are "allowed" into any American city. Last time I checked the Constitution, religious liberty was a civil right, as fundamental as free speech to a free society (which is why the right is part of our very First Amendment).

Otherwise the rule in too many Cypresses apparently would be: The Lord giveth, and Costco taketh away.