HOUSTON — Two African American churches in Houston have filed a lawsuit in response to what they say is an illegal city attempt to seize their property for an urban renewal project.
“When we moved into this area, it was considered the highest crime-rate area in the city of Houston,” Latter Day Deliverance Revival Church Pastor Roy Lee Kossie said according to a news release from Liberty Institute, the Christian legal organization representing Latter Day and nearby Christian Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. “People shot first and asked questions later. But we love this community. This is where the Lord called us and this is where we want to stay. We aren’t giving up without a fight.”
Tory Gunsolley, president and CEO of the Houston Housing Authority, told the Houston Chronicle the city wants land owned by the churches as part of a redevelopment effort to include a library and 63-unit housing project. The housing project would replace an apartment complex that had to be demolished because of damage sustained from Hurricane Ike in 2008. The demolished complex could not be rehabilitated, Gunsolley said, because of limitations associated with its proximity to Interstate 10.
The city tried to buy property from both churches before initiating an attempt to seize a portion of Latter Day’s property through eminent domain laws. Houston has not begun the eminent domain process on the parcel owned by Christian Fellowship, Gunsolley said.
“We are trying to build decent, safe, affordable, but modern housing,” Gunsolley told the Chronicle.
Christian Fellowship Pastor Quinton Smith claims on a video posted online by Liberty Institute that a city representative threatened to acquire the church’s property through eminent domain laws if the congregation did not sell it. Eminent domain laws allow a government to require the sale of private property for public use.
The lawsuit states that seizure of the churches’ property would violate their religious freedom. Forced sale of the disputed properties “would limit Latter Day’s growth and its congregants’ ability to worship and minister to the community,” according to the suit. City redevelopment of Christian Fellowship’s property would “fully displace” it “from its only property in the community.”
The Liberty Institute release claims the churches have helped transform Houston’s impoverished Fifth Ward “into a safer place, offering church-run food pantries, youth centers, and programs to combat drug use, gang violence, and abuse.” Liberty’s online video features the testimony of a man who trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior through the ministry of Latter Day and was delivered from a life of drug addiction.
“Just let us stay here,” Smith said in the video.
The lawsuit asks a court to prevent the city from claiming the churches’ property and to require the city to reimburse the churches for attorneys’ fees and court costs.
“The folks here who have been part of this community for decades, holding it together, making the improvements around this community, building this community up with their own bare hands, are now facing the government coming in and stealing their church, to be used for some other business,” Liberty Institute attorney Hiram Sasser told the Chronicle. “That’s totally un-American and it’s completely illegal.”