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Judge says Catholic Church must allow access to La Lomita Chapel property for border wall survey

Over objections from the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, surveyors will map the historic La Lomita Chapel property in Mission — an initial step required to build the border wall.

The federal government requested access to the La Lomita Chapel property, which is located just yards from the Rio Grande, as part of preparations for the border wall. Bishop Daniel E. Flores refused, calling the wall “contrary to the faith in practice of the Catholic Church.”

20180502 La LomitaAttorneys for the government responded with a lawsuit against the church and the city of Mission, which leases La Lomita from the diocese.

During a hearing Wednesday morning, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane determined the diocese must allow surveyors to access the property.

“I just can’t see that allowing a few people on to do some surveying is a substantial burden,” Crane said.

After hearing arguments from the church and the government, Crane asked the attorneys to reach an agreement that would allow reasonable access to La Lomita.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John A. Smith III, who represented the government Wednesday, said surveyors wouldn’t require access to the chapel building or disrupt religious activity.

Smith will negotiate the agreement with Mary McCord, an attorney with the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University, and other attorneys who represent the diocese.

“The court seemed to recognize, and the diocese certainly recognizes and intends to pursue, further relief if and when the government persists in taking the property for the actual building of the wall. This is really just step one,” McCord said. “That would require an entirely new declaration of taking, an entirely new condemnation action and that’s when the church’s arguments, the diocese’s arguments, that this building of the wall would present a substantial burden on the exercise of religion are going to become much more significant.”

What property the government may eventually attempt to acquire remains unclear.

Documents filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas show a red box that covers the east side of the property, including the historic La Lomita Chapel. That part of the map is marked “Proposed Project Area.”

During the hearing, however, Smith indicated the La Lomita Chapel building wouldn’t be affected by the border wall.

“We’re hoping the government, frankly, will just reconsider,” McCord said. “I mean, recognizing that a physical barrier that cuts off access to the chapel, and not only to Father Roy and his parish but those who seek to worship there, is clearly a substantial burden on the exercise of religious freedom.”

Crane also determined the diocese must allow surveyors access to property owned by Juan Diego Academy.

“The government may be wasting its time doing this,” Crane said, referencing the possibility that attempts to build the border wall on church property would face legal challenges. “But it wants to do this anyway.”

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