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Lancaster nuns sue feds over pipeline, citing religious freedom

A group of Roman Catholic nuns has filed court papers saying a planned pipeline through their Lancaster County cornfield would violate their religious freedom.

Roman Catholic Sisters Bernice Klostermann and George Ann Biscan  show the arbor put up in an effort to block the Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline.  Mark Clatterbuck of the group Lancaster Against Pipelines is at right.
Roman Catholic Sisters Bernice Klostermann and George Ann Biscan show the arbor put up in an effort to block the Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline. Mark Clatterbuck of the group Lancaster Against Pipelines is at right.Read moreFrank Kummer

A group of Roman Catholic nuns is suing a federal agency, saying a buried natural gas pipeline approved to run through their rolling Lancaster County cornfield would violate their religious freedom.

The suit seeking to keep the pipeline off the property says the sisters from the Adorers of the Blood of Christ order "believe that God calls humans to treasure land as a gift of beauty and sustenance that should not be used in an excessive or harmful way."

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission'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," the suit states.

"This is a really deeply held and sincere religious belief of the Adorers," the nuns' attorney, J. Dwight Yoder, said. "What is being proposed by Transco just completely violates what they believe in.  This isn't just some landowner who suddenly found Jesus. These sisters live out their faith."

The federal civil suit was filed in U.S. Eastern District Court in Reading against the commission and its acting chair, Cheryl A. LaFleur. FERC approved the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, being built by the Transcontinental Pipeline Co., in February.

A spokeswoman, Tamara Young-Allen, said the agency would not comment on current litigation.

The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline would run 185 miles from the Marcellus Shale to the southern part of Pennsylvania, then into Maryland and farther south. The pipeline's parent company, Williams Partners, wants to lay a 42-inch-diameter pipe along the edge of a 23-acre parcel the sisters own off Locust Grove and Prospect Roads in West Hempfield Township.

Williams would have permanent rights to a path about 50 feet wide on 1.65 acres owned by the nuns.  The company said the pipe would be buried three to five feet deep and covered over with soil so the property could continue to be farmed.

The Natural Gas Act allows companies to condemn properties on federally approved projects. Williams is seeking condemnation since the nuns have fought the easement.

Williams said in court filings that the appraised value for right of way to the nuns' land is $109,740 and that it offered the nuns more.  That sum was not disclosed.

The sisters say they don't care about the money.  They say an internal land ethic they signed in 2005 binds them to resist development.

"As women, we celebrate the rhythms of creation; with Mother Earth we live the Paschal mystery of life, death and new life and, with others, preserve and nurture creation," states one part of the pact.

The Adorers are also involved in a parallel court case that deals with Williams' condemnation proceedings.  On Monday, a federal judge took testimony on the case, along with testimony regarding other condemnations for the pipeline.  That testimony will continue Thursday.

Christopher Stockton, a spokesman for Williams, said Tuesday that the nuns "failed to raise any of these issues" about religious freedom to the commission as it was considering the project. At this point, he said, "their filing constitutes a collateral attack on the FERC order issuing the certificate.  Further, their filing was made in the wrong court.  We look forward to addressing the issues raised when, and if, brought in the proper forum."

Carl H. Esbeck, an expert on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, said the nuns could have a hard time proving their case but could succeed.

First, they must show sincerity of their beliefs, he said, which should not be difficult.  But they then would have to demonstrate that the pipeline would place a substantial burden on their religious faith, which could be more difficult. 

If they succeed in both, the burden of proof would fall on the government regarding the condemnation, something federal attorneys would fight aggressively. 

"Let's just step back and take a 10-mile-high view of this," Esbeck said. "A federal judge is going to be loath to grant the nuns' claim here. There's always resistance to these types of projects. People cite concerns — environmental, safety, visual blight. And because there are always objections, that's why we have eminent domain." 

Native American tribes tried a similar legal suit to block the Dakota Access pipeline and failed. The judge in that case did not rule on the merits of religious claims, however. Rather, he said the tribes had waited too long to make the claim.   

"I don't mean to make light of it, but we can't just stop progress," Esbeck said. "If a religious claim was going to happen, it would have happened in North Dakota."