Nuns want religious freedom trial over Lancaster pipeline on their land

Sisters Bernice Klostermann and George Ann Biscan, both Roman Catholic nuns, in front of an arbor, that some call a prayer chapel, erected in a clearing on the order’s Lancaster County farm in an attempt to protest the planned Atlantic Sunrise pipeline that would run through the field.

An order of environmentally conscious Roman Catholic nuns will argue in federal appeals court in Philadelphia this week that a pipeline recently buried under their Lancaster cornfield violates their religious freedom, and they want a trial to settle the issue.

Attorneys for the Adorers of the Blood of Christ are set to appear before the three-judge panel to argue that the pipeline, approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and built by Williams Partners, “represents a gross violation of their deeply held religious convictions.”

The nuns are appealing an Eastern District Court dismissal of the case in September. That court said that it was not the proper venue to try the Religious Freedom Restoration Act case and that the nuns should have raised their concerns during the pipeline’s approval process or tackled their issues through FERC.

The nuns appealed, claiming the court does have jurisdiction and that’s where they should be making their religious freedom claims.

“I think when you have private companies using the power of eminent domain to take land from a group of nuns who committed their lives to doing the Lord’s work and use that land consistent with their faith, it strikes a nerve with people,” J. Dwight Yoder, the nuns’ attorney, said about public reaction to their crusade.

At issue is a small portion of the 185-mile Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline being built by Transcontinental Pipeline Co. from the Marcellus Shale to the southern part of Pennsylvania and then into Maryland.

The pipeline’s parent company, Williams Partners, used condemnation proceedings to acquire an easement through a parcel the sisters own in West Hempfield Township. The company could do so because the pipeline was approved by the federal commission as serving a public use.

The nuns fought that eminent domain proceeding in the spring of 2017 and erected an arbor, suggestive of a chapel, at the site, virtually daring the company to tear it down.  But they lost a legal challenge.

However, the nuns also filed a separate religious freedom civil suit last summer, saying the pipeline violates their deeply held beliefs.

Meanwhile, Williams began burying a 42-inch-diameter pipe under the farm and covered it with vegetation. Williams has permanent rights to a 50-foot-wide path on just over one acre of the property.

Christopher Stockton, a spokesman for Williams, said the nuns have full use of the land and can farm on it. He also said the pipeline provides “a huge benefit to all people.”

“While we respect the Adorers’ right to express their opinion, we disagree with the position they have taken with regard to this important infrastructure project,” Stockton said.

Cheryl Wittenauer, a spokeswoman for the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, said the order signed a pact in 2005 to protect the land, long before any mention of a pipeline. The order’s religious beliefs include a “deep and longstanding commitment to safeguard the sanctity of the Earth,” Wittenauer said.

She said in an email that a tenet of their order is to “seek to reduce reliance on climate-destroying fossil fuels, and strongly oppose environmentally destructive practices such as hydraulic fracturing.  As such, the forced installation of a fossil fuel project on their own land represents a gross violation of their deeply held religious convictions.”

Legal experts have said the nuns would have a tough time proving a religious freedom case.  Native American tribes attempted a similar legal action to block the Dakota Access pipeline and failed.

But Yoder, the nuns’ attorney, says the tribes objected to the use of government land. In this case, the argument revolves around the taking of private land.

Yoder said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act gives the nuns the right to take a case directly to court, and not through FERC’s administrative process.

“That was the whole point when Congress adopted the act and gave people the right to file a claim in court when their religious beliefs are violated,” Yoder said.