Nuns build chapel to block pipe­line’s path

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RELIGION - JULIE ZAUZMER

COLUMBIA, Pa. — The end of the road, where the street sud­denly stops and the tow­er­ing wall of corn be­gins, al­ways called out to Linda Fis­cher. She would pedal her bike there slowly as a child, back be­fore they built any houses on the road, when it was just the corn­stalks grow­ing thick to­ward the sky. It was the si­lence she found there, the ho­li­ness she felt in that still­ness, that led her to ded­i­cate her life to God.

Fis­cher has al­ways known this land as sa­cred.

Now the 74-year-old nun and her sis­ters in their Catholic or­der, the Ador­ers of the Blood of Christ, sud­denly find them­selves fight­ing to pro­tect the land from an en­ergy com­pany that wants to put a nat­u­ral gas pipe­line on it.

“This just goes to­tally against ev­ery­thing we be­lieve in — we be­lieve in sus­te­nance of all cre­ation,” she said.

The pipe­line com­pany first sought with­out suc­cess to ne­go­ti­ate with the nuns. Now as Wil­liams Cos. tries to seize the land by em­i­nent do­main, the or­der is gear­ing up for a fight in the court­room — and a pos­si­ble fight in the field, as well.

There, smack in the path of the planned pipe­line, the nuns have ded­i­cated a new out­door chapel.

“We just wanted to sym­bol­ize, re­ally, what is al­ready there: This is holy ground,” said Sis­ter Janet McCann, a mem­ber of the or­der’s na­tional lead­er­ship team, whose 2,000 nuns around the world have made en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and ac­tivism a key part of their mis­sion.

The sis­ters’ chapel is a rudi­men­tary sym­bol, but a pow­er­ful one: eight long benches, a wooden ar­bor and a pul­pit, all on a straw-cov­ered patch of land carved out of the corn­field. More than 300 peo­ple came to the chapel’s con­se­cra­tion ser­vice on July 9. Since then, neigh­bors of many faiths have been stop­ping by to pray, leav­ing rib­bons to mark their sol­i­dar­ity.

The Ador­ers and their sup­port­ers’ nascent faith-based re­sis­tance, which has been com­pared to the anti-pipe­line ac­tivism led by Amer­i­can In­di­ans at Stand­ing Rock, N.D., could even­tu­ally set a prece­dent in a murky area of re­li­gious free­dom law.

Fed­eral courts have ruled in­con­sis­tently on whether fed­eral

law pro­tects re­li­gious groups from em­i­nent do­main in such cases. The 3rd Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals, which cov­ers Delaware, New Jer­sey and the part of Penn­syl­va­nia where the nuns re­side, has yet to is­sue a rul­ing on the mat­ter. Le­gal ob­servers say a case could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“There is some­thing to this ‘holy land’ thing,” said Dan Dal­ton, a Michi­gan land-use and zon­ing lawyer and the au­thor of a book on the lit­i­ga­tion of re­li­gious land-use cases. “There haven’t been a lot of ap­pel­late cases… . It re­ally is a rel­a­tively new is­sue.”

All of the Ador­ers’ com­mu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing this one in Penn­syl­va­nia’s ru­ral Lan­caster County, agree to con­duct their busi­ness trans­ac­tions in keep­ing with the prin­ci­ples of eco­log­i­cal jus­tice the sis­ters drafted in 2005, known as their “land ethic.” The nuns have joined in protest­ing hy­dro­elec­tric power in Brazil and worked with Gu­atemalans op­posed to gold min­ing.

So when a sur­veyor for Wil­liams first came by to tell the nuns that he was check­ing out their land for the com­pany’s At­lantic Sun­rise pipe­line that will even­tu­ally cut across 183 miles of Penn­syl­va­nia, the nuns turned to their land ethic, and they told the sur­veyor that they couldn’t even dis­cuss it.

Christopher Stock­ton, a spokesman for Wil­liams, says that at that point the com­pany was will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate on where it drew the path of its pipe­line, which will carry the nat­u­ral gas that has been gush­ing out of Penn­syl­va­nia’s Mar­cel­lus shale re­gion since ex­trac­tion by frack­ing was au­tho­rized in the state. Stock­ton also said that once the com­pany as­sessed the land, it of­fered to pay more than the ap­praised value to use the prop­erty.

The At­lantic Sun­rise pipe­line will con­nect with the com­pany’s Transco pipe­line, which car­ries gas north from the Gulf of Mex­ico to East Coast mar­kets, to trans­port Penn­syl­va­nia gas to other states.

“It’s an im­por­tant project,” Stock­ton said. “Since the ad­vent of shale dis­cov­er­ies, now Penn­syl­va­nia

pro­duces the sec­ond-most nat­u­ral gas in the coun­try be­hind Texas. What’s hap­pened is you don’t have the in­fra­struc­ture in place to con­nect those sup­ply ar­eas with mar­ket ar­eas. … Now they’ll have ac­cess to Penn­syl­va­nia nat­u­ral gas.”

Wil­liams isn’t buy­ing the land out­right from farm own­ers, just pay­ing for an ease­ment to dig up their farm­land and put a pipe in — and then re­turn the land to them. Stock­ton said the com­pany will com­pen­sate farm­ers for lost crops and will re­turn to in­spect whether agri­cul­tural out­put over the pipe­line re­turns to nor­mal.

“We’ve been lis­ten­ing, and we re­ally have been try­ing to do our best to min­i­mize im­pacts. That’s why it’s so crit­i­cal that landown­ers and peo­ple po­ten­tially af­fected by the project are will­ing to talk to us,” Stock­ton said.

In many cases, he said, the com­pany re­drew its plans to ac­com­mo­date landown­ers’ re­quests. But the nuns weren’t will­ing to sit down for a con­ver­sa­tion.

“We are be­liev­ers in sus­tain­able en­ergy,” McCann said. “These are fos­sil fu­els. Fos­sil fu­els are dan­ger­ous to

the en­vi­ron­ment. They are not sus­tain­able.”

Ac­tivists ar­gue that the com­pany presents only the il­lu­sion of choice, by agree­ing to mi­nor changes in the pipe­line’s route but not let­ting landown­ers opt out al­to­gether.

“The way the sys­tem is set up, you’re not al­lowed to say no,” said Mark Clat­ter­buck, who leads Lan­caster Against Pipe­lines, a grass­roots group op­posed to the At­lantic Sun­rise project.

Fed­eral law gives a pipe­line com­pany the right to seize prop­erty through em­i­nent do­main once the Fed­eral En­ergy Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion (FERC) has signed off on the project. The Ador­ers, who also spon­sor a nurs­ing home near the field, are among fewer than 30 landown­ers who have not signed agree­ments with the com­pany, lead­ing to em­i­nent do­main pro­ceed­ings, Stock­ton said.

Over a lunch of liver and onions at the nuns’ res­i­dence, Lan­caster Against Pipe­lines ac­tivists helped come up with the idea of a chapel in the corn­field, which the nuns lease to a farmer.

In a com­plaint they filed in fed­eral court July 14, the

nuns ar­gued that the com­mis­sion’s au­tho­riza­tion of the pipe­line on their prop­erty vi­o­lated their re­li­gious free­dom, pro­tected un­der the U.S. Re­li­gious Free­dom Restora­tion Act.

“FERC’s de­ci­sion to force the Ador­ers to use land they own to ac­com­mo­date a fos­sil fuel pipe­line is an­ti­thet­i­cal to the deeply held re­li­gious be­liefs and con­vic­tions of the Ador­ers. It places a sub­stan­tial bur­den on the Ador­ers’ ex­er­cise of re­li­gion,” the nuns’ at­tor­neys wrote.

An­other fed­eral law, the Re­li­gious Land Use and In­sti­tu­tion­al­ized Per­sons Act of 2000, might more specif­i­cally pro­tect the nuns, de­pend­ing on a judge’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion. That law seeks to shield re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions from land-use laws that would oth­er­wise im­pose a sub­stan­tial bur­den on their re­li­gious ex­er­cise. But the na­tion’s ap­pel­late courts have of­fered dif­fer­ing opin­ions on whether the law ap­plies to em­i­nent do­main. The 3rd Cir­cuit, where the Ador­ers are lo­cated, has never ruled on that ques­tion, sev­eral lawyers fa­mil­iar with this area of law said, so the nuns could be the ones

to set the prece­dent.

Wil­liams sought an emer­gency in­junc­tion to seize the land right away, to pre­vent the nuns from ded­i­cat­ing their chapel, but the com­pany lost that round. At a June 17 hear­ing be­fore a Dis­trict Court judge, they asked to seize the land im­me­di­ately, and that case is still pend­ing.

Nuns who could still make the jour­ney to the field of­fered prayers in the out­door chapel last week for their work pro­tect­ing the land, for the de­ceased sis­ters who in­vested their lives in it and for the judge who will de­cide its next chap­ter.

For the read­ing, Sis­ter Ber­nice Kloster­mann read the words of the leader of their faith, Pope Fran­cis, in his ma­jor en­cycli­cal on the en­vi­ron­ment, Laudato Si. “Liv­ing our vo­ca­tion to be pro­tec­tors of God’s hand­i­work is es­sen­tial to a life of virtue; it is not an op­tional or a sec­ondary as­pect of our Chris­tian ex­pe­ri­ence,” Kloster­mann read.

All around her in the hal­lowed clear­ing, green shoots of new corn­stalks broke through the straw.

The Wash­ing­ton Post/MICHAEL S. WIL­LIAMSON

Sis­ter Linda Fis­cher lives near the site of the pro­posed gas pipe­line in Penn­syl­va­nia. She and her fel­low nuns are among those fight­ing the project, and they have erected an out­door chapel on their land that lies in the path of the pro­posed pipe­line.

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