By Mark Scolforo
Tuesday, February 7, 2006; A06
HARRISBURG, Pa., Feb. 6 -- A city agency violated the separation of church and state when it seized a woman's home to help a religious group build a private school in a blighted Philadelphia neighborhood, a state appeals court ruled Monday.
In a 4 to 3 ruling, the Commonwealth Court said the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority should not have taken the property in 2003 so the Hope Partnership for Education could build a middle school.
The court said the seizure by eminent domain ran afoul of a clause in the Constitution that keeps Congress from establishing religion or preventing its free exercise. The Hope Partnership is a venture of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and the Sisters of Mercy, two Roman Catholic religious orders.
"The evidence shows that the Hope Partnership designated the land that it wanted and requested the authority to acquire it, and the authority proceeded to do so," Judge Doris A. Smith-Ribner wrote for the majority. "This joint effort demonstrates the entanglement between church and state."
The court ruled that the authority may not take private property, then give it to a religious group for its private development purposes.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that New London, Conn., had the authority to take homes for a private development project. That ruling has been greeted with widespread criticism, and several states have been reviewing their laws related to eminent domain.
In a dissent to the ruling Monday, Judge Dante R. Pellegrini said there was no evidence that the Hope Partnership school project was designed to establish a religion, but rather was meant to serve residents of a poor neighborhood.
The school is in an area where a Catholic elementary school closed in 1993. It is among a group of similar initiatives in needy neighborhoods across the country.
Sister Rose Martin, executive director of the project, said 30 fifth- and sixth-graders are currently enrolled at the Hope Partnership Middle School in space rented from a community center. She said the goal is to build a $5.3 million center that would eventually have 120 students, serve grades 5 through 8 and offer adult education.
Martin said Monday it is too early to know how the ruling might affect the project. She emphasized that the institution is not a Catholic school. It has two nuns involved in day-to-day operations but offers no religious instruction, she said.
"There is no attempt to proselytize," she said. "The school, the center, is being established to respond to the need for quality education in the community."