Nuns are suing to stop a pipeline—because they believe the earth is sacred

A win could change the way environmentalists fight pipelines.

CREDIT: iStock
CREDIT: iStock

A group of Pennsylvania Catholic nuns are suing to protect their land from potential pipeline construction using an unusual legal argument: religious liberty, specifically a version popularized by right-wing Christians.

As the Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer reported over the weekend, a group of nuns in Columbia, Pennsylvania are fighting to stave off the construction of a natural gas pipeline across land they own. Williams Companies, the company in charge of the The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, initially tried to negotiate with the nuns, but turned to more extreme measures after talks broke down. Now, the company is attempting to seize the land through eminent domain, forcing the matter into court.

In response, the nuns — who belong to the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, a religious institute with a strong environmentalist bent — have erected a chapel directly in the projected path of the pipeline. They say that if the court sides against them, they are prepared to hold a constant protest vigil at the site until Williams Companies backs off.

“This just goes totally against everything we believe in — we believe in sustenance of all creation,” Linda Fischer, one of the nuns, told the Washington Post.

But the Adorers are bringing something relatively new, and potentially groundbreaking, to the environmentalist cause: a legal claim that building a pipeline on their land violates their rights under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) — the same law often cited by right-wing conservatives.

The sisters, who cite Pope Francis’ famously passionate defense of the environment as inspiration, are hardly the first faith group to fight pipeline construction. Religious coalitions have been championing environmentalism for years. They’re not even the first group of U.S. nuns to make national news for trying to stop a pipeline; that mantle belongs to the Sisters of Loretto, who successfully defeated attempts to build the Bluegrass Pipeline across their Kentucky land back in 2014.

But the Adorers are bringing something relatively new, and potentially groundbreaking, to the environmentalist cause: a legal claim that building a pipeline on their land violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) — the same law often cited by right-wing conservatives.

In their complaint filed in federal last Friday, the Adorers explain their faith is rooted in a “deeply held religious belief” that creation “is a revelation of God, the sacredness of which must be honored and protected for future generations.”

“The Adorers believe that God calls humans to treasure land as a gift of beauty and sustenance that should not be used in an excessive or harmful way,” the complaint reads. It goes on to note that the sisters adopted a “land ethic” in 2005 that proclaims “the sacredness of all creation,” and that building a pipeline would “substantially burden” their ability to “use and protect their land as part of God’s creation” — something explicitly prohibited under RFRA.

The origins of the nuns’ legal framework are rooted in the 2014 Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, when the craft store giant successfully used RFRA to seek a faith-based exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. The court decision greatly expanded the scope and impact of RFRA, a divisive shift that was celebrated by many conservatives but widely criticized by progressives. Others saw an opportunity: As ThinkProgress first reported in December 2016, at least one scholar who focuses on sacred land disputes between Native Americans and the federal government began suggesting RFRA as a legal mechanism for environmental fights in February 2015.

It wasn’t until February 2017, however, that the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe finally used the argument to file a legal request for a temporary restraining order to stop construction of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. The tribe insisted oil from the pipeline would “desecrate” waters they use for religious practices “and therefore substantially burden the free exercise of their religion.”

The effort was short-lived. The judge ultimately rejected their request, ruling that since the tribe was concerned about the oil — which would not flow for weeks — and not the pipeline itself, the situation didn’t merit a temporary restraining order because it did not present an “imminent” threat to their faith. The tribe filed an appeal a month later, but Jan Hasselman, a lead attorney in the ongoing Dakota Access case, told ThinkProgress the effort has since been dismissed.

By contrast, the nuns’ claim is a bit of an easier — or at least less complicated — sell than the one made in the Dakota Access Pipeline case. Unlike the advocates in Standing Rock, for instance, they appear to privately own the land where the pipeline is projected to cross.

Nevertheless, winning a case like this — which some say could reach as high as the U.S. Supreme Court — could bolster future claims by Native Americans and any number of faith groups fighting to rebuke construction efforts on land they deem sacred. Writers are already popularizing the idea as a potential tool for Native Americas, especially since indigenous cultures in North America and Polynesia typically view environmental issues as inherently religious.

Alternatively, a win for the nuns could have the opposite impact for Native Americans. Because many Native American sacred land disputes involve land that is government owned, a favorable decision could weaken their legal claims.

Time will tell how the nuns’ case will be resolved, but one thing is certain: they’re not going down without a (spiritual) fight.

This post was updated to clarify the potential impact of the lawsuit.