Indiana land plan huge gift to church

The Common Council in South Bend, Ind., voted 5-4 on June 27 in favor of Mayor Stephen Luecke’s plan to spend $1.2 million to buy and demolish a Family Dollar Store and then turn the property over to St. Joseph’s Catholic High School, which will use the land for new athletic facilities, including a football stadium.

In FFRF’s June 14 letter to the city, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote that the city “cannot legally subsidize the creation of a religious school campus.”

The letter noted that St. Joseph’s Principal Susan Richter had sent an email to parents and alumni of the school, asking them to lobby the council. Her message read in part:

“Part of this current budget proposal includes $1.2 million to acquire the Family Dollar Store along LaSalle Street and gifting it to Saint Joseph’s High School. . . . We have been working with the Mayor’s office for several months on this aspect of our new school project.”

FFRF filed an open records request for correspondence related to the property acquisition and transfer.

According to the South Bend Tribune, the council voted for the plan “despite concerns about constitutional separation of church and state.” At a committee meeting before the vote, Luecke objected to Councilman Oliver Davis calling the $1.2 million expenditure “a gift” to the school. Luecke claimed it’s not a gift because the school “has agreed to allow scheduled public use of the football field and school buildings when the high school is not using them itself.”

City legal staff cited a 2003 Indiana Supreme Court ruling, Embry v. O’Bannon, which held that a private school can get public support if it derives only an “incidental” benefit and offers some public benefit in return.

Freedom From Religion Foundation