COLUMBIA, Pa. — The end of the road, where the street suddenly stops and the towering wall of corn begins, always called out to Linda Fischer. She would pedal her bike there slowly as a child, back before they built any houses on the road, when it was just the cornstalks growing thick toward the sky. It was the silence she found there, the holiness she felt in that stillness, that led her to dedicate her life to God.
Fischer has always known this land as sacred.
Now the 74-year-old nun and her sisters in their Catholic order suddenly find themselves fighting to protect the land from an energy company that wants to put a natural gas pipeline on it.
“This just goes totally against everything we believe in — we believe in sustenance of all creation,” she said.
The pipeline company first sought without success to negotiate with the nuns. Now as Williams Cos. tries to seize the land by eminent domain, the order is gearing up for a fight in the courtroom — and a possible fight in the field, as well.
There, smack in the path of the planned pipeline, the nuns have dedicated a new outdoor chapel.
“We just wanted to symbolize, really, what is already there: This is holy ground,” said Sister Janet McCann, a member of the national leadership team of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, whose 2,000 nuns around the world have made environmental protection and activism a key part of their mission.
The sisters’ chapel is a rudimentary symbol, but a powerful one: eight long benches, a wooden arbor and a pulpit, all on a straw-coated patch of land carved out of the cornfield. More than 300 people came to the chapel’s consecration service July 9. Since then, neighbors of many faiths have been stopping by to pray, leaving ribbons to mark their solidarity.
The Adorers and their supporters’ nascent faith-based resistance, which has been compared to the anti-pipeline activism led by Native Americans at Standing Rock, N.D., could eventually set a precedent in a murky area of religious freedom law.
U.S. appeals court judges have ruled inconsistently on whether federal law protects religious groups from eminent domain in such cases. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, which covers Delaware, New Jersey and the part of Pennsylvania where the nuns reside, has yet to issue a ruling on the matter. Legal observers say a case could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“There is something to this ‘holy land’ thing,” said Dan Dalton, a Michigan land-use and zoning attorney and the author of a book on the litigation of religious land-use cases. “There haven’t been a lot of appellate cases. . . . It really is a relatively new issue.”
All of the Adorers’ communities, including this one in Pennsylvania’s rural Lancaster County, agree to conduct their business transactions in keeping with the principles of ecological justice the sisters drafted in 2005, known as their “land ethic.” The nuns have joined in protesting hydroelectric power in Brazil and worked with Guatemalans opposed to gold mining.
So when a surveyor for Williams came by to tell the nuns that he was checking out their land for the company’s Atlantic Sunrise pipeline that will eventually cut across 183 miles of Pennsylvania, the nuns turned to their land ethic, and they told the surveyor that they couldn’t even discuss it.
Christopher Stockton, a spokesman for Williams, says that at that point the company was willing to negotiate on where it drew the path of its pipeline, which will carry the natural gas that has been gushing out of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale region since extraction by fracking was authorized in the state.
The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline will connect with the company’s Transco pipeline, which carries gas north from the Gulf of Mexico to East Coast markets, to transport Pennsylvania gas to other states.
“It’s an important project,” Stockton said. “Since the advent of shale discoveries, now Pennsylvania produces the second-most natural gas in the country behind Texas. What’s happened is you don’t have the infrastructure in place to connect those supply areas with market areas. . . . Now they’ll have access to Pennsylvania natural gas.”
Williams isn’t buying the land outright from farm owners, just paying for an easement to dig up their farmland and put a pipe in — and then return the land to them. Stockton said the company will compensate farmers for lost crops and will return to inspect whether agricultural output over the pipeline returns to normal.
“We’ve been listening, and we really have been trying to do our best to minimize impacts. That’s why it’s so critical that landowners and people potentially affected by the project are willing to talk to us,” Stockton said.
In many cases, he said, the company redrew its plans to accommodate landowners’ requests. But the nuns weren’t willing to sit down for a conversation.
“We are believers in sustainable energy,” McCann said. “These are fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are dangerous to the environment. They are not sustainable.”
Activists argue that the company presents only the illusion of choice, by agreeing to minor changes in the pipeline’s route but not letting landowners opt out altogether.
“The way the system is set up, you’re not allowed to say no,” said Mark Clatterbuck, who leads Lancaster Against Pipelines, a grass-roots group opposed to the Atlantic Sunrise project.
Federal law gives energy companies the right to seize property through eminent domain once the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has signed off on the project. The Adorers, who also sponsor a nursing home near the field, are among fewer than 30 landowners who have not signed agreements with the company, leading to eminent-domain proceedings, Stockton said.
Over a lunch of liver and onions at the nuns’ residence, Lancaster Against Pipelines activists helped come up with the idea of a chapel in the cornfield, which the nuns lease to a farmer.
In a complaint they filed in federal court Friday, the nuns argued that FERC’s authorization of the pipeline on their property violated their religious freedom, protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“FERC’s decision to force the Adorers to use land they own to accommodate a fossil fuel pipeline is antithetical to the deeply held religious beliefs and convictions of the Adorers. It places a substantial burden on the Adorers’ exercise of religion,” the nuns’ attorneys wrote.
Another federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, could more specifically protect the nuns, depending on a judge’s interpretation. That law seeks to shield religious institutions from land-use laws that would otherwise impose a substantial burden on their religious exercise. But the nation’s appellate courts have offered differing opinions on whether the law applies to eminent domain. The 3rd Circuit, where the Adorers are located, has never ruled on that question, several lawyers familiar with this area of law said, so the nuns may be the ones to set the precedent.
Williams sought an emergency injunction this month to seize the land right away to prevent the nuns from dedicating their chapel, but the company lost that round. At Monday’s hearing before a U.S. District Court judge, they will again ask to seize the land immediately.
If Williams wins Monday and gains immediate right to the land, Clatterbuck says that activists with Lancaster Against Pipelines are prepared to start a round-the-clock vigil at the site, with the aim of preventing Williams from destroying the chapel.
The nuns, too, will be praying as they consider whether to appeal such a decision.
On Monday, Sister Therese Marie Smith, who joined the Adorers at age 20 and is now 87, probably will be in the rocking chair in her living room, where corn fills the view out of both the southern and western windows.
“This is my prayer spot, right here,” Smith said. “I just look out and praise God for his goodness, because it is just beautiful.”
Smith remembers the days when the nuns raised chickens, and sisters who tilled the fields all day would come home to the convent sunburned. For decades, the Adorers had farmed this land themselves, beginning when they first moved to Columbia to teach Croatian immigrant schoolchildren and open the nursing home in the 1920s.
This week, the nuns who can still make the journey walked into that same field to offer prayers in the outdoor chapel for their work protecting the land, for the deceased sisters who invested their lives in it and for the judge who will decide its next chapter.
For the reading, Sister Bernice Klostermann read the words of the leader of their faith, Pope Francis, in his major encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si. “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience,” Klostermann read.
All around her in the hallowed clearing, green shoots of new cornstalks broke through the straw.