Canaan Baptist Church sits across from a fire station in Duncanville, where its eighteen-year plan to raise a new building may soon near its end if Duncanville successfully seizes its property through eminent domain.
The reason: to build a fire station.
The City of Duncanville filed a Petition for Condemnation against Canaan Baptist in Dallas County court on August 28th. Aided by religious freedom advocacy group First Liberty, the church filed a motion to dismiss that petition Tuesday, the latest volley in an ongoing battle over the church’s property.
In 2018, the city council approved the Duncanville Bond Program, whose third proposition provided for a new emergency and fire station. The city then began prodding the church to sell, first through a realty company that, the church alleges, never clearly revealed the city as the interested party behind the offers. After persistent rejection, the city began to footnote its offers in late 2019 with the reminder that Duncanville could use eminent domain to seize the property.
Although the city sent letters on March 12 and April 24 of this year asking the church to sell, the resolution to seize the property with eminent domain had already made its way onto the agenda at a March 3rd meeting of the city council.
The congregation currently worships at a different location which they hope to leave for a planned building on their contested plot of land. For years, they have used the empty land for various church and community service events.
Having owned the land and planned to raise a new building there for nearly two decades, the church asserts that caving to the city’s plans would set their own back eighteen years.
The city asserts that the new fire station project must go forth as a matter of the public welfare.
“The City Council of the City of Duncanville, Texas, hereby finds and determines that a public necessity exists for the welfare of the City and its citizens; and, it is in the public interest for the City of Duncanville Texas, to acquire two parcel of real property in fee simple located at 308 and 232 West Camp Wisdom Road, respectively, Duncanville, Dallas County Texas, for public purpose of constructing and maintaining a fire station and other public appurtenances through the use and right of the City’s power of eminent domain or negotiation in accordance with the Texas Constitution and Texas Property Code,” the city’s resolution reads.
According to the motion filed yesterday by the church, Canaan Baptist moves to dismiss the city’s petition under Texas Property Code §21.019, which allows property owners to seek a “judicial denial” of condemnations such as the City of Duncanville’s. The church also alleges that the city’s actions violate two laws: the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“TRFRA”), Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code § 110.009(a)-(b), and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc.
The TRFRA makes it illegal for the government to “substantially burden” the free exercise of religion. The RLUIPA protects houses of worship, among other religious institutions, from discrimination in zoning laws.
According to the motion and the exhibits it includes, and to the “Jericho walks” the church conducts to the empty site where as yet no structure stands, the members and elders of the church believe that God has paved a path for them to build there and that the city’s petition marks just one more obstacle to overcome.
“The Church believes that this Church Property was provided by God for Canaan Baptist to exercise its religious mission,” the motion reads. “Despite facing hurdle after hurdle, the Church has remained faithful for nearly 20 years to what it believes is a divine call to build a new facility.”
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