All property rights should be considered sacred. But the federal government’s announced plan to seize a historic mission belonging to the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville is especially unfortunate.
We have long asked that the government respect land rights as much as possible as it plans its controversial border wall. Officials should utilize existing government easements as much as possible, especially if the structure can serve double duties by fortifying the Rio Grande levee system and help provide additional flood protection.
Instead of following the river’s many twists and turns, however, the barrier’s planned route takes a straighter route that sometimes runs several miles away from the actual border, rendering thousands of acres of private property unusable. The plans might cut corners, but might not cut costs significantly once condemnation and litigation costs of taking the property from hundreds of unwilling owners are factored in.
Land is precious, especially along the border where many families have lived on the same property for generations. In many cases family members are buried on that property, and much of it has historic significance. As officials have found in previous border fence land seizures, the owners won’t give up their property without a fight.
Land targeted for seizure for the border wall includes La Lomita mission owned by the Catholic Diocese. The federal government on Oct. 25 filed a declaration of taking, initiating eminent domain action against the property.
It has obvious historic and inspirational value. Originally, a way station for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the priests who ministered to the Rio Grande Valley on horseback more than a century ago, it eventually became a monastery for novitiates who were training for the priesthood. It is on the National Registry of Historic Places, and it’s the reason the nearby town was named Mission.
The government’s notice indicates that the largely pristine land eventually will be subject to the construction of roads, fencing, security lighting and other barriers and structures.
The diocese is challenging the seizure, claiming it violates the church’s First Amendment right to practice its religion. The site is open to the public and Mass is regularly celebrated in the chapel. It also is close enough to the existing border easement that a diversion closer to the river should not raise a significant problem.
The Oblates order this week announced their support for the diocese’s fight.
Federal officials should reconsider this seizure. While the First Amendment doesn’t give special privileges to any religion, the taking of an active place of worship, especially one with such historic significance, might make some people uncomfortable.
History is filled with similar seizures that originally seemed minor, but later were followed by harsher persecution of religious groups, such as Nazi Germany’s aggression against the Jews, Chinese persecution of Tibetan monks or communist actions against several organized religions.
No one expects anything so severe to occur in the United States, but the current administration already has tried to restrict entry into this country by people from Muslim countries. The land seizure could be seen as a punitive act against another religion, in this case the Catholic Church, and given the sensitive nature, it’s an issue the administration might want to avoid.