A Marion County judge on Wednesday said the Salem-Keizer School District’s lawsuit to acquire a Keizer church’s land through eminent domain can move forward.

Marion County Circuit Court Judge David Leith denied a motion from St. Edward Catholic Church to dismiss the suit, saying the forced land sale didn’t violate a federal religious freedom law.

The district filed a lawsuit in late December seeking to acquire six acres of vacant church land for a planned expansion of McNary High School. The land would be used for athletic fields that will be displaced from current school grounds when new classroom space is added to the building.

District leaders first attempted to buy the land in November before filing the suit. Both parties are still negotiating a possible sale outside the courtroom, but have yet to reach an agreement, attorneys said Wednesday.

“We remain hopeful that we’ll be able to get to a mutually beneficial sales price,” district spokeswoman Lillian Govus said.

Church attorneys Nicole Swift and Kevin Kiely argued Wednesday that forcing the church to sell its land violated a federal law prohibiting a government entity 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.

But Leith disagreed, ruling an eminent domain case didn’t qualify as a land use regulation unless it was part of a larger zoning or land use plan.

“The school district is not a land use regulating entity,” he said.

The district’s attorneys have asked the court to grant immediate possession of the land so permitting and design work for the McNary campus can begin. Construction is scheduled to start this summer.

Leith did not rule on that request Wednesday. Both sides will present arguments and evidence at a future hearing that has not been scheduled.

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

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