The Freedom From Religion Foundation is renewing its demand that the Federal Emergency Management Agency rescind a proposed $1 million-plus handout for a Kentucky church/tornado shelter.
In 2021, a concerned city resident and taxpayer in Versailles, Ky., had alerted FFRF about an official decision to spend public funds to pay for a new church building on church property. FFRF wrote to FEMA and received a response indicating that the project was put on hold pending review of the constitutional issues. FFRF has continued to keep an eye on this project and, now the national state/church watchdog has learned that FEMA is moving forward with the grant whereby approximately $1.2 million will be used to construct the new building, which will be owned by First Baptist Church, with the church agreeing to public use of the building during an emergency.
The proposal for the project clearly explained that the funds will be used to build a church:
Day-to-day, the planned use for the space would be for the First Baptist Church to be able to utilize the space for worship services and church functions, and for [Ministries United Serving Together] to utilize portions of the structure for service initiatives as well. As such, the plan is for a portion of the building to be set up as a large open space/great hall that First Baptist would utilize as a sanctuary for services.
It is unconstitutional for FEMA to direct federal funds to be used to build a new church that will be used for worshiping, FFRF contends. The First Baptist Church website clearly states its sectarian mission of “Shaping lives for eternity through evangelism, discipleship, worship, stewardship, leadership and fellowship,” citing the New Testament verse Matthew 28:16-20.
“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from funding religious worship,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. “FEMA may not use public resources to build a church that will be used for religious worship and the benefit of a religious congregation.”
That’s why FEMA must revoke this unconstitutional grant immediately, FFRF is insisting. It is also requesting that FEMA review the grant to ensure that the applicants have not misled the agency on the purpose of the grant.
FFRF in its letter emphasized that using public funds to build a church attacks the values at the heart of our secular republic:
One of this country’s first religious freedom laws, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, warned that taxing citizens to give their money to churches is “sinful and tyrannical.” Written by Thomas Jefferson and shepherded through the Virginia legislature by James Madison, the statute is adamant: “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.” The right to be free from that compulsion is the bedrock of religious liberty. This is one of America’s founding principles. That law provided the intellectual and moral foundation for the First Amendment and our secular Constitution.
The Kentucky Bill of Rights explicitly bars state citizens from being compelled “to attend any place of worship, or contribute to the erection or maintenance of any such place…” (Section 5)
“This is such an egregious, shocking and overt misuse of taxpayer funds to build a place of worship,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “Nonbelievers, non-Christians — and Christians who are not Baptist — must not be forced to finance a sectarian religious structure. FEMA itself could build a secular shelter with these funds, which could be used by the community at other times for activities that meet the needs of everyone regardless of religion.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 39,000 members and several chapters across the country. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.