Judge says Catholic Church must allow access to Pharr Oratory property for border wall survey

This article was originally published Friday, Dec. 14, 2018

An attempt by the Catholic Church to fight the border wall flopped Wednesday in federal court.

During the past few months, more than 100 property owners in Hidalgo County allowed the federal government to survey their land for the border wall.

PharrOratorylogoThe Pharr Oratory of St. Philip Neri — a congregation of Catholic priests that owns 26 acres near the International Boundary and Water Commission levee — refused to cooperate. Allowing surveyors access could “impede or interrupt the Freedom of Religion for the priests and seminarian living on the property,” according to a response filed by attorney David C. Garza of Brownsville, who represents them.

When attempts to reach an agreement failed, the federal government filed a lawsuit.

“I can’t see that it is a substantial burden at all,” said U.S. District Judge Randy Crane, who heard the case Wednesday afternoon. “It seems, at this point, a rather trivial intrusion.”

Crane ordered the oratory to allow surveyors temporary access to the property.

Attorneys for the government filed the lawsuit in September.

“The public purpose for which said property is taken is to conduct surveying, testing and other investigatory work needed to plan the proposed construction of roads, fencing, vehicle barriers, security lighting, cameras, sensors, and related structures designed to help secure the United States/Mexico border within the State of Texas,” according to the lawsuit.

The oratory responded in October with more than 20 objections, which included First Amendment concerns.

“In connection with this, four persons live on the property, three Roman Catholic priests and a seminarian. There is a chapel where mass and other catholic religious services are regularly conducted. There is a library that is used by the priests and seminarian that live on the 26 acres and other persons all requiring limitations on the request for temporary possession and the Plaintiff’s activities to take place there,” according to the response filed by the oratory. “Other activities that take place there are use of the chapel for retreats and other events throughout the entire property. Also, there are different Catholic churches in the area that make use of the chapel and additional masses are conducted there in addition to the masses conducted on Sundays.”

Just days after the oratory responded to the lawsuit, the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville released a statement about the dispute between the church and the government over surveying.

“While the bishop has the greatest respect for the responsibilities of the men and women involved in border security, in his judgment church property should not be used for the purposes of building a border wall,” according to the statement. “Such a structure would limit the freedom of the Church to exercise her mission in the Rio Grande Valley, and would in fact be a sign contrary to the Church’s mission.”

On Wednesday, though, Garza, the attorney who represents the oratory, didn’t address any of the 20 objections or the church’s stance on the border wall.

Garza questioned why surveyors wanted access to the oratory property, which is located north of the levee, when the border wall would be built south of the levee.

“I’m not sure why my client, Pharr Oratory, has been singled out,” Garza said.

Crane took a dim view of that argument.

“I don’t think it’s a valid objection to say ‘Why us? Go somewhere else,’” Crane said, adding that Garza appeared to be making a flurry of objections and hoping that something would stick.

Crane directed Garza and attorneys for the government to negotiate reasonable access for surveyors and submit an agreed order within a week.

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