The Adorers of the Blood of Christ (“Adorers”), an order of Catholic nuns, built an open-air chapel in hopes of blocking construction of the Atlantic Sunrise project, a natural gas pipeline expansion in Pennsylvania. The chapel was dedicated on July 9, 2017 and sits directly in the pipeline’s proposed path. Court papers filed by the Adorers with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) assert that a decision by FERC to force the Adorers to accommodate the pipeline is “antithetical to [their] deeply held religious beliefs and convictions.” Lawyers for the Adorers assert that the nuns’ religious convictions “compel the Adorers to exercise their religious beliefs by, inter alia, caring for and protecting the land they own as well as actively educating and engaging on issues relating to the environment.”
The chapel could halt or delay the Atlantic Sunrise project to be constructed by Williams Partners (“Williams”), an Oklahoma-based energy company. Williams seeks to lay 183 miles of pipeline across Pennsylvania, which would expand the Transco pipeline system that currently transports natural gas from Texas to New York. According to a company statement, the $3 billion expansion of the existing Transco natural gas pipeline would “create a crucial connection between Pennsylvania and consuming markets all along the East Coast.” This dispute between the Adorers and Williams revolves around the 1993 Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states that “governments should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification.” Earlier this year, FERC cleared the way for the pipeline’s construction, including the condemnation of property in its path. The result of any legal challenge by the Adorers may affect the nature of the intersection between condemnation law and the laws of religious freedom. It remains to be seen whether these particular circumstances could support a legal outcome favoring the Adorers.