For seven years, Reverend Roosevelt Gildon has preached the gospel at the Centennial Baptist Church in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. His congregation, around 50 strong, is like a small family. The elderly members, and those without cars, often walk to Sunday services.
”Rosey,” as his friends call him, figured he’d go on preaching in the tidy steel structure for years to come. That was, until the government told him they were taking his church away.
Since the Supreme Court’s controversial Kelo decision last summer, eminent domain has entered a new frontier. It’s not just grandma’s house we have to worry about. Now it’s God’s house, too. “I guess saving souls isn’t as important,” says Reverend Gildon, his voice wry, “as raking in money for politicians to spend.” The town of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, has plans to take Centennial Baptist–along with two other churches, several businesses, dozens of small homes, and a school–and replace them with a new “super center,” rumored to include a Home Depot. It’s the kind of stuff that makes tax collectors salivate. It’s also the kind of project that brakes for no one, especially post-Kelo. “I had no idea this could happen in America,” says Reverend Gildon, after spending Monday morning marching in the Sand Springs Martin Luther King Day parade.
This unholy takeover goes back to Sand Springs’s controversial “Vision 2025″ project, which emerged in 2003. The plan includes, according to its website, the “largest set of public redevelopment projects in the history of Tulsa County.” The money earmarked for Sand Springs was supposedly meant to focus on redeveloping an abandoned industrial area for big box retailers and other stores. One problem: Centennial Baptist Church isn’t abandoned, and unlike some of the other buildings in its neighborhood, it is in pristine condition. More importantly, the church doesn’t want to sell–and they have good reasons. “After I heard the news, we started looking to see if we could move,” Gildon said. “I just don’t think we can afford it. It’s too expensive. And if we can’t move, and they take our building, what happens to the church? If we leave, who is going to minister to the black community in Sand Springs?”
Reverend Gildon is a practical man. He’s not a firebrand, and he’s not looking for a fight. He just loves God and loves his church, and wants to continue serving his community. Unfortunately, local officials would rather have an extra parking lot for a new Bed Bath & Beyond.
It makes sense on one level. Churches don’t generate any tax revenue for the government to spend. They don’t “stimulate” the economy. They often, much to their peril, occupy prime, envied real estate. With the supercharged powers granted by Kelo, be very, very afraid.
What’s most egregious about this application of eminent domain is that there’s already plenty of room for development, even if the pesky church sticks around. Many community residents were happy to sell their property. Two other churches in the area decided to move to Tulsa. Other structures in the area were dilapidated and ready for the deal. The way things are now, Centennial Baptist Church could easily live side-by-side with new stores, houses, or businesses. Yet Centennial remains in the crosshairs–even though two nearby national chains, a taxpaying McDonald’s and a taxpaying O’Reilly’s muffler shop, have been left alone.
In December, Reverend Gildon joined up with Americans for Limited Government and our partner group, Oklahomans in Action, to gather signatures for the “Protect Our Homes” initiative, which will go on the ballot in November 2006. Protect our Homes is a measure designed to stop eminent-domain abuse. Right now, Americans for Limited Government is working with citizens in Michigan, Montana, Missouri, and several other states to do the same.
“I hope that my story makes people more aware,” said Reverend Gildon, “and that maybe it stops other people’s homes and churches from being taken against their will.” Meanwhile, he awaits his next meeting with the planning board, where they will tell him how much his church is worth. If things don’t change, it promises to be an offer he can’t refuse.
–Heather Wilhelm is a Phillips Foundation fellow and serves as the director of communications for Americans for Limited Government.