Today, a panel of the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals decided to side with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the fossil fuel industry over the religious freedoms of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ.
The Adorers are a religious order of Roman Catholic Sisters who seek to exercise their religion faithfully and consistent with their deeply held religious beliefs.
In 2005, the Adorers adopted a Land Use Ethic recognizing the earth as sacred. They are committed as part of their religious belief and practice to use the land they own in a manner that does not harm the earth and recognizes the sanctify of life in the earth’s current and future inhabitants.
As Pope Francis reiterated on the third anniversary of his encyclical letter, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home, the threat to the earth from climate change, caused in large part by the continued use and expansion of fossil fuel, is a deeply spiritual and religious matter.
Based on these religious beliefs and practice, the Adorers have steadfastly refused to allow Williams, an Oklahoma-based for-profit company, to use the Adorers’ own land located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for a new high-volume gas pipeline.
Rather than respecting the Adorers’ religious beliefs, FERC and Williams forced the Adorers to use their own land in violation of their religious beliefs. FERC and Williams relied upon a federal law, the Natural Gas Act, to condemn the Adorers’ land in order to place a portion of the pipeline on the property, even though this clearly violated the Adorers’ religious beliefs.
In response, the Adorers filed a lawsuit in the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Congress adopted RFRA specifically to protect the religious freedoms of individuals and religious organizations from being substantially burdened by any federal law or agency, including the Natural Gas Act.
At issue in this case was the simple question of whether the Court would follow the plain language of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or would, instead, defer to the Natural Gas Act. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act specifically guarantees individuals the right to file a private cause of action if the government substantially burdens the religious freedoms of individuals or organizations. There is no question in this case that the actions of FERC and Williams have substantially burdened the Adorers’ religious beliefs and practices.
Contrary to the plain language of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that requires that it supersedes all other federal law, the Third Circuit today decided that the administrative requirements of the Natural Gas Act trump the rights guaranteed to the Adorers by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
While historically, the federal courts have been the stalwart protectors and defenders of religious freedoms in our country, today’s panel sided with the interests of the powerful gas and oil industry over the religious freedoms of the Adorers.
The Adorers believe the Court wrongly decided this case and are exploring what remaining options they have to address this wrong. Thus, even though the Adorers are up against a powerful federal agency and a massive fossil fuel industry with unlimited resources, the Adorers believe that their faith and religious beliefs will ultimately prevail. At issue is nothing less than the future of our sacred earth.