Sarasota County must nix religious giveaway, FFRF urges

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking a Florida county not to approve a handout for an overtly religious event

A concerned local taxpayer informed the state/church watchdog that the Englewood Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) is considering awarding $1,000 and the free use of a county-owned park to Ignite Englewood to hold a religious event. (Sarasota County, through its Planning and Development Services Department, controls the Englewood Community Redevelopment Area.)

Ignite Englewood describes the event as:
… intended to provide an outdoor service for the community that will include music by a local praise band, two pastors who will be teaching and sharing a message from the Gospels, and the vision to bring a positive uplifting worship service to the public. (emphasis in original).

When asked “how this project meets the objectives of the CRA Plan,” the Ignite Englewood representative wrote, “I don’t have a full understanding of the objectives of the CRA Plan. However, I’m sure this event will not conflict with that plan.”

FFRF is mystified as to why the Englewood Community Redevelopment Area would consider awarding a grant to any organization openly declaring that it has no idea whether the funded project would advance the community plan in any way.

The grant and the rent-free reservation of a county park for a religious revival violate both the U.S. and Florida Constitutions, FFRF emphasizes.

“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits any ‘sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity,’” to quote the U.S. Supreme Court, FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne has written to Sarasota County’s legal counsel. “Specifically, the government may not fund projects for religious worship. Unlike the rental of government property or private displays on public property, direct government grants do not involve free speech considerations, only Establishment Clause concerns.”

The Florida Constitution similarly prohibits government funding of religious activities, FFRF reminds the county. Not only are government entities prohibited from establishing religion, “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution,” as Article I, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution puts it. Providing rent-free use of a county park and $1,000 of county taxpayer funds for religious music, a sermon, and a worship service plainly violates this stricture.

After sending its letter, FFRF has received communication from Sarasota County’s legal office stating that the Englewood Community Redevelopment Area Advisory Committee “has not yet voted a recommendation on the request you mentioned, but instead deferred it until our office could review the Establishment issue.”

FFRF is gratified that Sarasota County has started having doubts about the grant and is hopeful that its letter will further nudge the county in the right direction.

“A grant of this type would be a clear constitutional violation,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Sarasota officials should resoundingly deny what would amount to a religious freebie.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 31,000 members and several chapters across the country, including approximately 1,500 in Florida and a chapter in the state, the Central Florida Freethought Community. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that Ignite Englewood requested $10,000 of funding rather than $1,000.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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