Assume that a government agency informs you that it is going to take a portion of your property as part of a street expansion project. Can it do so? And if so, what if anything should the church receive in return? Church treasurers should be familiar with the answers to these questions.
Let’s begin with the basic principle that government can take private property for a public purpose without the owner’s consent—so long as it pays the owner “just compensation.” This is known as “eminent domain” or “condemnation.” Churches are subject to eminent domain like any other private property owner. But what is “just compensation” when a government agency “takes” part or all of a church’s property? That was the issue before a Florida court in a recent case. A county government exercised the power of eminent domain to take a portion of a church’s parking lot. The county agreed to pay the church for the value of the land it took. The church wanted more. It insisted that the county pay it “business damages.” Under many state laws the government must pay business owners “business damages” in addition to the value of the property that is taken. Business damages recognize that a business does not receive “just compensation” when the government reimburses it only for the value of property taken by eminent domain. Such a taking may also adversely affect the business’s profits, at least in the near future.
The church argued that it was entitled to business damages because of the county’s taking of its property. It noted that the county had taken a portion of its parking lot which would result in “lost profits” because fewer donors would be able to attend services. A state appeals court disagreed. It noted that business damages are available only for “businesses,” and that the church was not a business. It observed: “Because the promotion of religion, not its own livelihood, is the primary purpose of a church … we conclude that a church is not a business as that term is used [in the statute].” Trinity Temple Church of God in Christ v. Orange County, 681 So.2d 765 (Fla. App. 1996).
This article originally appeared in Church Treasurer Alert, April 1998.