Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

FFRF blocks giveaway for church repairs

Vol. 35 No. 01 January/February 2018

An Alaska city wisely chose not to dole out money to a local church after the FFRF raised objections to the proposed move.

The Sitka City Assembly was prepared to allocate $5,000 from the city’s Visitor’s Enhancement Fund to help repair St. Michael’s Cathedral. City Attorney Brian Hanson had reviewed concerns that funding this church would violate the First Amendment and initially (and erroneously) concluded that the grant would be permissible.

FFRF challenged this assessment. Hanson failed to properly apply the Supreme Court’s 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) test. Other cases have shown that Lemon’s second prong (that a governmental action’s principal or primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion) does not allow grants that support religious activities, FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne asserted. Two subsequent cases, Tilton v. Richardson (1971) and Community House, Inc. v. City of Boise (2007), in particular affirm this.

The city’s potential funding of St. Michael’s Cathedral advanced religion even more obviously than the unconstitutional actions in Tilton v. Richardson and Community House, FFRF contended. Repairing a building that is used for religious worship, and that has the sole stated mission of winning converts to a particular religion, unconstitutionally supports both that religious worship and that religious mission.

The Sitka City Assembly eventually paid heed to FFRF’s counsel.

“After deliberation that spanned several meetings, St. Michael’s Cathedral will not receive $5,000 from the city for exterior work,” a local radio station reported. “At a short meeting on Tuesday, the Sitka Assembly voted 4-3 against donating the money for renovations to the historic building. The ordinance, originally presented to the assembly on Nov. 7, continued to stir up debate over the separation of church and state.”

A Sitka Assembly member who voted the right way understood the implications of giving the church the city grant.

“It’s pretty clear that by doing this, you will be advancing the church’s goal,” Aaron Bean said. “Any money that they wouldn’t have to otherwise pay a contractor to do the work that they’ve been neglecting for years is going to end up furthering their agenda.”