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Does Seizing Church Property to Build Public Housing Violate Religious Protections?

When the Houston Housing Authority got served with the lawsuit, it was the most direct form of communication it had had with Latter Day Deliverance Revival Church in weeks.

While the housing authority wanted to seize Latter Day's three vacant properties through eminent domain, the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit religious rights group, swooped in on behalf of Latter Day to sue the HHA for violating religious freedoms granted under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Christian Fellowship Baptist Missionary Church sued, too, claiming that in order to build public housing, HHA planned to bulldoze that 60-year-old church — something HHA Chairman Lance Gilliam says the housing authority never even contemplated.

“The [HHA] can’t tell the church where it can and can’t do ministry,” says Jeremy Dys, the attorney representing Latter Day and Christian Fellowship. “These men have been there for 60-plus years.”

The housing authority had planned for well over a year to rebuild 63 units of the Kelly Village public housing apartments it previously demolished. The block on Lyons Avenue, between Benson and Worms streets, in Houston's historic Fifth Ward, offered a plausible location to do that — and maybe even to fit in a public library. There were several plots of gravelly grass and weeds, several vacant houses and only a few families in small, rundown homes. HHA planned to acquire all of the properties.

But when Pastor Quinton Smith at Christian Fellowship said he was not interested in selling his church back in March, Gilliam says, the housing authority scratched the library idea and never planned to touch the church — let alone bulldoze it. Pastor Harvey Clemons, a member of the board of the Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation, which is involved in revitalizing neighboring blocks, also told the Houston Press that Christian Fellowship never received a notice for eminent domain.

It’s a different story, however, for Latter Day.

Across from the church, Latter Day owns three vacant lots that it uses for outdoor ministries — or parking. After the eminent domain threat, the sign at the lot changed from parking to "Out Door Ministries." That was also when Latter Day bought the third vacant lot, apparently to expand its presence. Although Bishop Roy Lee Kossie was not willing to sell any of those lots, HHA moved ahead with the condemnation process — but the lawsuit and temporary restraining order, granted by a judge, put that on hold. 
A government agency can legally condemn a church when the agency can prove two key criteria: That it's seizing the property for a project that “furthers a compelling governmental interest,” and that this is the “least restrictive means” to further that interest. “This happens to be one of those circumstances where the greater good for the community is served,” Gilliam said.

Which is exactly what Liberty Institute disagrees with.

The organization has a long history of pursuing cases like these across the country. In 2009, it helped to win a similar case called Barr vs. the City of Sinton. The Sinton city council had passed an ordinance that would have forced a church to move its program that offered shelter and ministry to men outside the city limits. Liberty Institute argued it violated the Texas Religious Restoration Act, and the Texas Supreme Court agreed: It ruled that the ordinance was an undue burden on the church's religious freedoms, and the ministry program could stay.

Some would say that the Liberty Institute, which also has a long history of far-right extremism, siding with opponents of the ACLU to supporters of Dallas's non-discrimination ordinance, has sought to paint a disparaging picture of HHA. Gilliam says the housing authority has been concerned about a misleading image: big government chomping down on little churches, even bulldozing them entirely, even though HHA claims it has offered to help Latter Day find another nearby lot so that it can continue its ministries.

"We would love Latter Day at the table to help us with the vision," Gilliam said. "You wish everyone was working together toward the same outcome, and that’s why I worry about competing visions and us being portrayed as the big bad guys. "

When asked whether the churches would be open to compromising at all with the HHA or working together, Dys said, “Our clients would be open to staying where they’re at and continuing to do ministry according to the vision that they’ve had for decades.” When asked whether the church would be open to simply moving the ministries and parking down the block, Dys said, “These churches were called to those properties, were called to that place and were called to minister that area.” In other words: Not at all.

Because of pending litigation, both churches asked that the Liberty Institute speak on their behalf. Dys told the Press he's still under the impression that HHA wants to seize — and demolish — Christian Fellowship through eminent domain, something still boldly announced on its website. He pointed to an April 2014 Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation “Lyons Avenue Renaissance Plan” as evidence, as well as the court hearing for the temporary restraining order. (Gilliam and HHA's attorney, Greg Clark, maintain that any outward reference made to eminent domain, in court or otherwise, is only regarding the three vacant lots and others on the block — not the church itself.) The Renaissance Plan for this specific block at that time shows a Legacy Clinic (a medical facility), townhouses and a large parking lot that would overtake the church, several houses and Latter Day’s lots, too. Dys called the plans a “profit-making venture of some form.”

But Clemons says that plans for the Legacy Clinic (which would be a nonprofit) have transferred to the block west of Worms Street on Lyons, and that they’re looking for a new home for that library, too. In fact, in a March letter to Sen. Rodney Ellis obtained by the Press, it was Latter Day that proposed a number of for-profit ventures such as a barbecue restaurant, buffet restaurant, thrift boutique and a professional printing shop. Gilliam said that, if it weren’t for the pending suit that has basically cut off any communication except through attorneys, the housing authority would’ve been willing to help with some of Latter Day’s vision for the neighborhood, too — using HHA funds.

But for now, the only plans on the books for the block are those 63 public housing units — which, besides the gravelly, grassy lots used for vacation Bible school and worship service parking, leaves the people who still live in the tiny homes more directly at stake.

Inovia Beck has lived in Fifth Ward her entire life, for 52 years. She lives in a little house that faces the side of Christian Fellowship church, and a few months ago, she got a call from her landlord: Somebody wanted to tear down her home to build new housing, he told her. She was concerned that she and her neighbors on either side of her wouldn’t have any place to go. She said she was open to public housing taking over the vacant lots, but wanted to stay in her home.

“All these vacant lots around, why don’t they do something with them? Instead of coming where people are living at,” said Beck, who is a board member of the Neighborhood Civic Club yet says she didn't learn of the redevelopment plans through anyone but her landlord. “Why would you come and tear down something like that when all these empty lots are just sitting here?”

Gilliam said that all the people who live in any houses would be offered new housing, as required by law, and would be appropriately compensated.

Whether the housing authority even gets to that point, though, is a different question. A hearing is scheduled for August 31 to decide whether a temporary injunction that's blocking HHA's plans in the neighborhood will continue.

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