The city council in Madison, Wis., voted 17-2 in July to give $13,500 to the Catholic Multicultural Center in Madison.
The diocese closed the center, which has operated since 1946, on very short notice in May due to budget problems. It reopened Aug. 3 under the leadership of a local parish.
The city’s resolution provided “one-time funding in an amount equivalent to one month salary and benefits for the three full-time administrative staff” at the center and noted that “the funds are not to be used for religious proselytizing.”
The rationale for the city giving money to the center is that it provides social services, including free meals, a food pantry and educational and health programs, along with “an environment where members of different backgrounds and faith communities could come together in service in a welcoming environment.” The center, which historically has served minority populations, had an operating deficit in 2007 of about $300,000.
Mayor Dave Cieslewicz didn’t respond to an e-mail asking for comment. But in his Aug. 3 online blog he said while he was skeptical initially about the need for city funding, the reopening of the center with the city’s help is an example of Madison “at its very best. . . . Madison Catholics got dealt some lemons, so they made lemonade and lots of it.”
City Attorney Michael May defended the funding: “The center is providing secular social services. The funds cannot be used for religious purposes. In my opinion, it meets the three prongs of the Lemon v. Kurtzman test: It has a secular purpose; it does not advance or inhibit religion; and it does not entail any excessive entanglement.”
Efforts to also get funding from Dane County weren’t successful. “No county dollars are used to run the center,” said County Executive Kathleen Falk.
Madison Alder Lauren Cnare was one of the two “no” votes. She told Freethought Today that while the city often gives money to nonprofits, this time it circumvented the process by declaring an emergency and bypassing the city’s Community Services Commission. “I really don’t think the center’s situation was that dire.”
Cnare also saw it as an issue of separation of church and state. The center’s name includes “Catholic,” she said. “They can’t not be who they are.”
She added that she’s not a mean-spirited person, but said many charitable groups and private businesses are currently struggling.
“The city’s job is not to bail out the Catholic Church.”