12/30/2007

Philadelphia within law in condemning private land for a Catholic educational project: Philadelphia PA Inquirer, 12/29/07

Court upholds church-state case

By Nancy Petersen

In Pennsylvania, it is now legal in some cases to condemn blighted private property and turn it over to a religious organization, the state Supreme Court ruled this week. The case, which blended the hot-button issues of eminent domain and separation of church and state, revolved around a North Philadelphia neighborhood that the city certified as blighted 36 years ago.

The city Redevelopment Authority condemned the property, in the 1800 block of North Eighth Street, in 2003 and transferred it to the Hope Partnership for Education, a Catholic religious organization that proposed building a nondenominational middle school on the site, among other projects.

One of the property owners, Mary Smith, appealed the condemnation, arguing that it benefited a private religious entity and was not for a public purpose as the law requires.

Common Pleas Court found the action lawful, Commonwealth Court said it wasn't, and now the Supreme Court has ruled that it is, provided the primary purpose is to remove blight. "The principal or primary effect of the redevelopment plan . . . is to eliminate blight in this particular neighborhood," said Justice Cynthia Baldwin, who wrote the majority opinion. A secondary effect could be the advancement of religion, but there is no evidence that is the primary goal, she wrote.

Justice Max Baer disagreed, calling the majority decision unfortunate. "I believe this is a case of direct government aid, in the form of a land transfer below market value, to a religious organization for the development of a religious school," Baer wrote in his dissent.

The result, he wrote, is the "direct financing of religious education with the primary effect of advancing religion." The city, the Hope Partnership and Smith's representatives could not be reached for comment.


Philadelphia PA Inquirer: http://www.philly.com