FFRF convinces Wis. town to stop funding church religious initiative

Jeremiah Genin

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has persuaded the city of Fitchburg to not give away thousands of taxpayer dollars to a church project with stealth religious goals.

A concerned Fitchburg resident had contacted FFRF to report that the city granted $10,000 to Chapel Valley Church for four local events as part of the Healthy Neighborhood Initiative. 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.

In a sermon published on the Chapel Valley website on June 9, 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]

It is unconstitutional for Fitchburg taxpayers to be forced to support religious events of this sort, FFRF had reminded the city. In a letter to Mayor Aaron Richardson, FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne had requested assurances that the city would terminate any existing contracts related to this project with the church, would not provide reimbursements for these religious events that have not already been paid and would not award any taxpayer funds to this church in the future. Additionally, FFRF’s letter noted, the city leadership should have flagged this policy violation on its own.

FFRF’s diligent sleuthing paid dividends for Fitchburg taxpayers.

“The city has not issued a reimbursement to Chapel Valley Church for their Healthy Neighborhoods grant and does not plan to,” the Fitchburg mayor recently emailed FFRF.

FFRF is pleased that the Fitchburg administration changed its mind after the state/church watchdog presented it with the facts.

“The motivation of the church in applying for the grant was hidden in plain sight,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The city of Fitchburg proved itself to be a good custodian of taxpayer funds after we unearthed the truth.”

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.

Photo of Pastor Jeremiah Genin via the Friendly Atheist blog of a now-deleted sermon.

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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