Judge rules Adorers must give access to land for pipeline

People sit at an outdoor chapel on the property of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ in Columbia, Pennsylvania, in early July. The chapel was built as a symbol to block the Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline. (CNS/Courtesy of Lancaster Against Pipelines/Mark Clatterbuck)

A federal judge ruled Aug. 23 that the Adorers of the Blood of Christ in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, must give a pipeline company immediate access to their land.

Judge Jeffrey Schmehl's decision comes about a month after Williams, the company building the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline extension, sued the sisters for immediate seizure of their land to prevent the construction of a chapel in the path of the planned pipeline. The company had already been granted a substantive right to possession, but the chapel, which the Adorers built in July, was intended as a protest.

In his ruling, Schmehl dismissed the idea that granting Williams and its parent company, Transco, immediate access to the land violates the sisters' religious freedom.

"Adorers claim that they 'exercise their religious beliefs by, among other things, caring for and protecting the land they own,' and that their efforts to 'preserve the sacredness of God's Earth' are integral to the practice of their faith," he wrote. "However, the Adorers have failed to establish how Transco's possession of the right of way on their land will in any way affect their ability to practice their faith and spread their message. They have not presented one piece of evidence that demonstrates how their religious beliefs will be abridged in any way."

Schmehl agreed with Transco that the pipeline project has already incurred "irreparable harm" caused by delays in construction. Transco alleged that not having access to the Adorers' land — as well as the land of the four other defendants in the case — was costing it $500,000 a month and delaying revenue of $33 million a month.

"We are disappointed that the federal judge today made the decision to condemn the rights of way and grant immediate possession of our (and others') property in Lancaster County to the Transcontinental Pipe Line Co. for the Atlantic Sunrise gas pipeline project," the sisters said in a statement posted to their website. "We will be evaluating our next steps."

The sisters declined to make any additional statement.

The Adorers are one of an estimated 32 local landowners who have refused to sell their land to Williams. The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline would be a $3 billion, 183-mile extension of the Transco pipeline system that currently runs 10,200 miles from Texas to New York.

"We appreciate the effort of the court to evaluate this issue and reach a timely decision," Williams said in a statement sent to Global Sisters Report. "It is important to stress that landowners still retain ownership of their property and are fairly compensated for the easement. The easement only gives us the limited right to install and operate the pipeline. Use of the land, with certain limitations, can remain the same as before construction."

Still pending, however, is the sisters' case against the oil company and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That case states the pipeline violates the sisters' rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the same law the Little Sisters of the Poor have cited in their case against the contraceptive mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Lancaster Against Pipelines spokesperson Lori Ann Neumann said the Adorers' lawyer is scheduled to meet with Schmehl about this case Aug. 25.

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is a Global Sisters Report staff writer. Her email address is daraujo@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @dawn_cherie]

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