Wis. town’s grant to local church unconstitutional, FFRF asserts

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling attention to the city of Fitchburg using taxpayer dollars to unconstitutionally fund religious events.

A concerned Fitchburg resident contacted FFRF to report that, earlier this year, the city granted $10,000 to Chapel Valley Church as part of the Healthy Neighborhood Initiative. Local media reported that the funds were for “four social gatherings at a park in the Verona Road West neighborhood to ‘build community and address issues such as food insecurity and workforce development.’” In its application, the church explicitly assured the city that these events, called the Daniel Project, were “NOT for religious purposes."

However, the church’s subsequent discussions of the Daniel Project showed that the events were, in fact, designed specifically for church members to promote their religious beliefs to members of the community, particularly “people that would never step foot in a church.” The church emphasized that the purpose of these events was not merely secular, but was a “strategic” attempt to “pray and minister” to those in attendance.

It is unconstitutional for Fitchburg taxpayers to be forced to support religious events of this sort, FFRF reminds the city. In a letter to Mayor Aaron Richardson, FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne has requested assurances that the city will terminate any existing contracts related to this project with the church, will not provide reimbursements for these religious events that have not already been paid and will not award any taxpayer funds to this church in the future.

Additionally, FFRF’s letter notes, it is concerning that city leadership did not identify this policy violation on its own. In a sermon published on the Chapel Valley website on June 9, 2019, the church’s pastor, Jeremiah Genin, spent nearly 20 minutes discussing the Daniel Project and its religious purpose:

There was this thing called the Healthy Neighborhood Initiative. It’s a grant that the city was encouraging for us to apply for. And we prayed about it . . . The goal is to meet practical needs. . . . They asked us really hard questions: what are your goals? . . . The goal is to meet practical needs, but it’s ultimately to bring the light of Jesus, in us, wherever we go. [emphasis added]

The pastor said that he had “zero interest” in hosting city-funded events that did not involve a religious component, while urging congregants to attend these events and “minister to” other attendees who are not ordinary church-goers.

“As you are certainly aware, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from financially supporting religious activities,” Jayne writes in his letter. “It is incumbent on the city to ensure that it funds only secular activities. Church-run social events intended to promote religion are not appropriate secular activities.”

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor comments, “Handing over $10,000 in public funds to a program that does a poor job of hiding its purpose to proselytize and promote religion is an affront to every Fitchburg taxpayer.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members across the country, including over 1,400 members in Wisconsin. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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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FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

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