St. Edward asks court to dismiss school district’s eminent domain case, citing religious freedom

The vacant field owned by St. Edward Catholic Church. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The Keizer church facing a forced land sale to accommodate a growing McNary High School contends that school officials are violating the parish’s religious freedom.

In a Jan. 18 court filing, St. Edward Catholic Church asked the court to dismiss a Salem-Keizer School District lawsuit to condemn about six acres of the church’s vacant land. The suit is the first step in taking the land by eminent domain.

The church argued that condemnation would violate a federal law that prohibits a government from imposing a land use regulation in a way that burdens religious exercise unless there’s a compelling governmental interest and no other way to achieve it.

“Even assuming that the district has a compelling government interest in acquiring the property for recreational fields and a parking lot, the district has not demonstrated that condemnation of St. Edward’s land is the only way to achieve these interests,” wrote Nicole Swift, the church’s attorney, in a court filing.

District leaders say they need the land to expand the McNary campus by adding more classroom and lab space, which would displace existing parking and athletic fields. Those uses would be relocated to the current St. Edward land.

The church is also challenging the district’s offer for the land.

Church leaders rejected a November district offer of $1.75 million, according to Marion County Circuit filings. That was more than the appraised value.

But the church now argues that figure didn’t account for the loss of value on the church’s remaining vacant land that would result from losing the bulk of the bare acreage.

The district has asked the court to grant it possession of the land by Feb. 4 so it can begin permitting work in advance of McNary construction, which is scheduled to begin this summer.

A hearing on the condemnation is scheduled for Jan. 30.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: (503) 575-1241 or [email protected]

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.