A Florida city must reject a local church’s request for tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to refurbish a swimming pool, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is insisting.
A concerned resident has informed the national state/church watchdog that the Palatka City Commission plans to consider a $35,000 request from Family Life Center representatives to help reopen the center’s indoor pool at a meeting later today, May 12. The city is also considering entering into a partnership with Family Life Center as part of this expenditure of taxpayer funds.
The Family Life Center is owned and operated by the Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, which “exists for the purpose of: Magnifying Jesus Christ through worship and the Word, Moving believers in Jesus toward maturity and ministry, and Making Jesus known to our neighbors and the nations.” The Family Life Center is not a distinct entity from the church, and serves the same purpose of spreading Christianity. The center would undoubtedly use its pool to entice those in the community to come to the center where it could then recruit them to join the church.
The city of Palatka cannot use public funds to essentially repair a church’s pool, FFRF asserts.
“Our Constitution’s Establishment Clause — which protects Americans’ religious freedom by ensuring the continued separation of religion and government — dictates that the government cannot in any way endorse religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Palatka Mayor Terrill Hill. “As the Supreme Court has put it: ‘The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’”
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment also prohibits the government from funding religious worship and proselytization, both of which regularly occur at the Family Life Center, and would no doubt be more effective if the city gives the church $35,000. It is important to note that the free exercise rights of the church are not at issue in this situation, FFRF emphasizes, because it is requesting that the city expend discretionary funds and has not applied for a publicly available grant.
The separation between state and church is one of the most fundamental principles of our system of government, FFRF underscores. The Supreme Court has specifically stated, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” (West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 1943) When a city expends $35,000 of taxpayer funds in order to support a religious organization, reasonable citizens will interpret this as government endorsement of religion.
The city of Palatka cannot spend taxpayer funds to support religion, FFRF emphatically concludes.
“With all the various urgent demands on public funds, the last thing that precious taxpayer money should be bestowed on is a church swimming pool,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It is especially an affront to residents who follow a religion other than Christianity and its Baptist sect, or who belong to no organized religion at all.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 37,000 members and several chapters across the country, including nearly 1,800 members and a chapter, Central Florida Freethought Community, in the state. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.