Blast From the Past: A Step Backward for Property Rights (Kelo vs. New London)

Originally posted 23 June 2005.

A few months ago I had lunch with the husband of a well-known Christian radio talk show hostess. As he is a lawyer, the Supreme Court’s docket came up, and he brought up the case of Kelo vs. New London, where the Conneticut city wanted to take the property of a group of homeowners for a waterfront development. In the midst of Ten Commandments and Pledge of Allegance cases, many Christians didn’t pay much attention to this, but he understood both its import and the “Supremes” likely decision on the matter.

He was right on both counts. Not only did the Supremes rule in favour of the city, but also this is a lot bigger deal than most activists on the “Religous Right” realise.

Absolute property rights are a cornerstone of American law and life. In many countries, all property was held by the Crown, to be doled out to the masses and others as the sovereign saw fit. The U.S. was different, and the breadth of private property rights is much broader here than just about anywhere else in the world. It has been a main instrument for the broad distribution of wealth and the general economic prosperity of the nation. It has also been an important instrument in freedom of all kinds, including religious, in spite of the many erosions we have seen of late, such as zoning and environmental law.

American property rights have a Biblical basis. Without going into a lot of detail, one reason why God (through Samuel) attempted to dissuade the Isrealites from a monarchy is that the monarch would basically own everything and the nation would be the monarch’s servants. Naboth found this out the hard way at Ahab’s hand. Micah prophecied “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it.” (Micah 4:4)

Perhaps this is why the left wants to purge the Bible from our public life and legal system. It is simply too populist a document, gives too much dignity to ordinary people, to allow free rein in the type of society they would like for us to have. Now the Supreme Court–primarily by its left wing–has struck a serious blow to property rights, a guarantor of equity. The left whines about how income distribution has skewed so much since the early 1970’s, but they are too much the product of the limousine to do anything serious about it.

And this has implications for the church too. In most places churches are exempt from property taxes. How much easier to raise property tax revenue than to condemn property that is tax exempt?

The issue of property is in many ways as important as any other in our legal system. Hopefully this sad decision will play an important role in our next few Supreme Court judicial nominating ordeals.

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