Nothing is sacred in a Florida Department of Transportation eminent domain proceeding, including a Religious institution that owns real property. Religious institutions are not free from the government’s ability to take private property for any reasonably necessary public purpose. It is the government’s burden to prove, however, that the taking is for a reasonably necessary public purpose, which is, in most cases, not too difficult. For example, economic motives are often sufficient motives for taking private property through the use of an eminent domain action. Catholic Burse Endowment Fund v. State Road Department, 180 So. 2d 513, 517 (Fla. 2d DCA 1965). Additionally, “unless a condemning authority acts illegally, in bad faith or abuses its discretion, its selection of land for condemnation will not be overturned by a court.” Id. at 516 (quoting Inland Waterway Development Co. v. City of Jacksonville, 38 So. 2d 676 (Fla. 1948)).
The Florida Department of Transportation is authorized to use an eminent domain action to take private or public property for the purpose of “securing and utilizing transportation rights-of-way, including, but not limited to, any lands reasonably necessary for securing applicable permits, areas necessary for management of access, borrow pits, drainage ditches, water retention areas.” Fla. Stat. §337.27. Eminent domain proceedings are within the Department of Transportation’s discretionary powers, and “where the public body is exercising its discretionary powers within the orbit of laws affecting them, the courts will not assume jurisdiction or exercise power to interfere with such public bodies. Courts will not determine whether or not the action of public officers is wise, economical or advantageous, such questions belonging exclusively to public officers and boards.” Broward County Rubbish Contractors Ass’n v. Broward County, 112 So. 2d 898, 903 (Fla. 2d DCA 1959).
The prototypical eminent domain proceeding against a religious institution is exemplified in Christian Romany Church Ministries Inc., v. Broward County, 980 So. 2d 1164, 1166 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008). In this case, the county sought condemnation of property owned by the Christian Romany Church Ministries, Inc., so that the county could expand its existing substance-abuse facility. The church in this case accepted that expanding the substance-abuse program was a public purpose, but questioned the reasonable necessity of the taking. Id. at 1166. The Church argued that the county did not put forth sufficient evidence that they considered alternative locations nor did they consider the safety of nearby schools. However, the trial court and the appellate court found that the evidence sufficiently showed that the County did consider alternative locations.
Next, the court went through a determination of reasonable necessity and found that “once a reasonable necessity is shown, the exercise of the condemning authority’s decision should not be disturbed in the absence of bad faith or gross abuse of discretion.” Id. A finding of reasonable necessity requires a factual determination of both the amount and location of the land to be condemned. Id.
An alternative way to oppose a Department of Transportation taking is by claiming a violation of the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act (FRFA), but this will be difficult. On appeal, the church in Christian Romany Church Ministries, Inc., v. Broward County, 980 So. 2d 1164 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008) argued that the taking was a violation of the FRFA. The court held that “the party claiming an FRFA violation ‘bears the initial burden of showing that a regulation constitutes a substantial burden on his or her exercise of religion.’” Id. at 1167 (quoting Warner v. City of Boca Raton, 887 So. 2d 1023, 1034 (Fla. 2004)). Claiming a violation of the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act will be very difficult to claim in an eminent domain action. The court in Warner defined a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion as “one that either compels the religious adherent to engage in conduct that his religion forbids or forbids him from engaging in conduct that his religion requires.” Id. at 1034. A substantial burden on the free exercise of religion is difficult to prove, and the appellate court in Christian Romany found that the trial court did not err when it held that “while it may be inconvenient for the church to have to move its location, it will not present a substantial burden on the exercise of religion.” Id. at 1166.
An eminent domain proceeding will likely be decided in favor of the Department of Transportation. A public crusade may be the best course of action in attempting to persuade a government agency to drop their eminent domain proceeding. For example, after mounting public pressure and the church’s refusal to negotiate a lower purchase price for their property, the city of Orlando dropped its eminent domain action against Faith Deliverance Temple and chose a new location for their Major League Soccer stadium. David Damron, Orlando Drops Eminent Domain Action Against Church, Moves Soccer Stadium Farther West, Orlando Sentinel, August 4, 2014.
A church that finds itself the subject of an eminent domain proceeding does not have to accept the government’s offer for their property. By refusing an offer the price will be driven upwards, which may be a deterrent for the government. If an offer cannot be agreed upon, litigation may become necessary and then the matter will become a battle of the appraisers to determine the value of the taking and not whether the taking is permissible.