The nuns knew it was a long shot when they teamed up with environmental activists to build a chapel in the path of a planned pipeline.
An energy company, which has plans to deliver the natural gas coming out of Pennsylvania’s fracking fields, has the authority to take the land it needs by eminent domain, and the cornfield owned by the nuns is in the pipeline’s proposed path.
But these nuns in Lancaster County, Pa., members of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, concluded that allowing a natural gas pipeline through their cornfield violated their belief in protecting the environment. They refused to strike a deal with the pipeline company — and, as a symbol, they worked with the activists to build a bare-bones chapel right in the spot where the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline would go.
The elderly sisters’ act of protest led to headlines nationwide, including a front-page story in The Washington Post.
It also led to a Reading, Pa., courtroom, where U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl ruled last week against the nuns. Williams Cos. has the immediate right to access the nuns’ land, Schmehl wrote in his order, and if the nuns or anyone acting with their blessing attempt to interfere, U.S. Marshals can arrest and imprison them.
If the nuns or the other four local landowners resisting the pipeline delayed construction, Williams Cos. would suffer “irreparable harm” from the financial cost, Schmehl ruled. He also wrote: “Granting the preliminary injunction is in the public interest, as the project will provide the general public throughout a vast area of the country with access to the Marcellus Shale natural gas supplies for heating their homes and other purposes.”
The nuns argued in court that allowing the pipeline on their land would go against their religious beliefs, including the “land ethic” that their 2,000-member worldwide order of Catholic sisters agreed upon years ago. Schmehl was unmoved.
“The Adorers have failed to establish how Transco’s possession of the right of way on their land will in any way affect their ability to practice their faith and spread their message. They have not presented one piece of evidence that demonstrates how their religious beliefs will be abridged in any way. Clearly, the harm alleged by Transco outweighs this harm alleged by the Adorers,” he wrote.
Despite the decisive ruling, the nuns’ fight is not over. Last month, they filed suit in federal court, arguing that allowing the pipeline on their land would violate their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They’re still waiting for a ruling in that suit, which could forestall Williams Cos. from beginning construction in their cornfield.
And Lancaster Against Pipelines, a grass-roots group opposing the Atlantic Sunrise project, has vowed since the construction of the outdoor chapel that if the company ever tries to tear out the wooden benches and altar, the group’s members will physically attempt to protect the space by praying there.
“Change is only going to happen from the bottom up,” Lancaster Against Pipelines leader Mark Clatterbuck said after the ruling last week. “It just comes down to local community doing it. No one’s going to come in and save us. It’s not going to be some judge.”
If Williams Cos. does start construction in the cornfield, the company will pay the nuns for the use of their land and will return it to them for farming once the pipeline is installed underground. But the sisters said in July that no amount of money could persuade them to support the use of their land for fossil fuel infrastructure, which they believe harms Earth.
At the time, chatting in the quiet home where many of the sisters live, they agreed that they weren’t sure their chances in court were very good — but that even if they lost, they’d have still done something good by drawing attention to their belief in environmental stewardship.
“To stand up and speak for the health of the Earth and of human beings and all of creation, I think that’s a win,” said Sister Janet McCann. Then she quoted the Italian nun St. Maria de Mattias, who founded this order in the 19th century. “I think that’s a win also, and helping to bring about that ‘beautiful order of things.’ There’s lots of ways to win.”