Can a city acquire a seminary's property through eminent domain? This controversial question was addressed recently by a federal appeals court in New York.
Here are the facts. A federal trial court judge ruled that the City of Yonkers, New York, had engaged in a longstanding practice of restricting public housing to a minority section of the city. Under pressure from the court, the city agreed to acquire a 2-acre portion of a Catholic seminary's 44-acre property through its power of eminent domain (or condemnation), and to construct 200 units of public housing on this property which was located in a nonminority area of the city.
The seminary contended that the city's proposed action would violate its constitutional guaranty of religious freedom, since the 2-acre tract was necessary to the "atmosphere of quiet reflection essential to the academic, spiritual, psychological and pastoral preparation of young men for the priesthood" at the only seminary in the archdiocese. The trial court assumed the validity of the seminary's religious objections, but concluded that they were outweighed by the government's "compelling interest" in eliminating racial discrimination.
On appeal, the federal appeals court observed that "it is well settled that a limitation by the government on the free exercise of religion is permitted only when the state can demonstrate that a compelling interest justifies the restriction and that no alternate means of accomplishing the state's compelling interest are available."
The court rejected the city's claim that the lack of any "politically acceptable alternatives" to acquiring the seminary's property constituted a compelling state interest, noting that "political expediency is far from a compelling reason to force the seminary to give up its property in derogation of a constitutional right."
The court concluded that the city would not have a compelling interest in obtaining the seminary's property against its will if alternative building sites in nonminority areas of the city were available, and it remanded the case back to the trial court for a full hearing on "the availability of alternative building sites … and whether the public interest in remedying discrimination can be reasonably accomplished without the taking of the seminary's property." Yonkers Racing Corporation and St. Joseph's Seminary v. City of Yonkers, 858 F.2d 855 (2nd Cir. 1988).