Supreme Court petition next step in effort to stop natural gas pipeline

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mark Clatterbuck, courtesy Lancaster Against Pipel

By Dennis Sadowski

(CNS) — A Pennsylvania religious congregation planned to petition the U.S.
Supreme Court to consider whether their religious freedom rights are being violated
by the construction and pending use of a natural gas pipeline on
its land.

The Adorers of the Blood of Christ
are rooting their legal argument in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, saying that their
“deeply held religious convictions about the sacredness of Earth” would
be violated once the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline becomes operational.

An attorney
for the sisters in Columbia,
Pennsylvania, contends that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit erred in allowing
provisions of the Natural Gas
Act that govern pipeline construction to supersede the intent of the Religious
Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA.

think the 3rd Circuit turned it (RFRA) on its head to apply the Natural Gas Act
to RFRA rather than RFRA control the Natural Gas Act,” attorney Dwight Yoder told Catholic
News Service.

The Adorers
announced their decision to petition the high court during a news conference
Sept. 7 on their property adjacent to the already-constructed underground pipeline.

In July, a
three-judge appeals court panel agreed with a lower court ruling that the congregation
had not made their religious objections known during the federal administrative
process that led to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval of the 183-mile
pipeline project.

Yoder said
that forcing the Adorers to make such arguments during administrative hearings
on the project would have placed an unnecessary burden on them under the law.

He said
RFRA provides no provision for individuals to “proactively” inform a
federal agency or federal employee to comply with the law. To do so “is
absurd in our opinion,” he said.

Instead, he
said, federal agencies are compelled under the law to ensure that RFRA’s
protections are enforced foremost.

Sister Bernice Klostermann, a
member of the congregation who has been involved in challenging the pipeline,
told CNS that the order’s claims are important in a country in which religious freedom
is a cherished value.

previous court cases just seemed like there was something not quite
right,” she said. “As Americans, of course, we have a right to appeal.
We want to do what we can to see if we can right this.”

The Adorers
have long held that allowing construction through their land would run contrary
to the congregation’s Land Ethic. Adopted in 2005, the document upholds the
sacredness of creation, reverences the earth as a “sanctuary where all
life is protected” and treasures the earth’s beauty and sustenance that
must be protected for future generations.

Klostermann said that the pipeline violates the congregation’s Land Ethic
because leaks of natural gas undoubtedly will occur, polluting the land and

are really collaborators with God. It’s not like creation happened way, way
long ago. Creation is a process. God created man and we are right here creating
alongside of him. We are co-creators and stewards of the land,” she said.

Oklahoma-based Williams Partners, through
its subsidiary Transco,
has completed pipeline construction. Transco petitioned FERC Aug. 24 to allow
it to become operational.

In an Aug.
31 letter to FERC, Yoder called on the agency to stop Transco from operating
the pipeline until the Adorers have exhausted their legal appeals.

Yoder also
reminded the agency that the 3rd Circuit panel “left open the possibility that
the Adorers could pursue a claim for damages arising out of FERC’s and
Transco’s violation of the Adorers’ rights under RFRA.”

In addition
to announcing their Supreme Court petition, the Adorers said at the news
conference that they planned to install a solar farm alongside the pipeline.
They called the step an act of “resistance” that “would bear
witness to clean, sustainable, earth-friendly energy sources.”

As part of
their plan to stop the pipeline, the Adorers have collaborated with local
activists, including the grass-roots Lancaster Against Pipelines. The organization built a symbolic
chapel adjacent to the pipeline route where the sisters and local residents
have prayed, reflected and discussed actions to block the massive project.

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski

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