FFRF stops illegal city collaboration with church

The city of West Linn, Ore., rescinded an unconstitutional grant to Willamette Christian Church after a Sept. 28 Freedom From Religion Foundation letter of complaint.

It came to FFRF’s attention that the West Linn City Council had approved a $1,300 grant to the church, ostensibly to start a teen center called The Summit. City staff purportedly spent considerable time on the proposal, with the regular fees waived.

Councilor Mike Jones, who later became a member of the church, was apparently the driving force behind the grant, fee waiver and overall proposal.

“Finding suitable after-school activities for middle school students and providing them a safe place to gather is laudable,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. “Teen programming may be a genuine concern for the community, and while WCC is willing to address that concern to a certain extent, the record provides ample evidence that the city’s actions crossed appropriate constitutional boundaries.”

It’s clear that the center, which would have been managed by the YMCA on weekdays, had religious purposes, Seidel noted. “WCC has scheduled ‘church-related activities’ for twice as much time as teen center activities.”

The schedule called for the center to be open 10 hours a week to the general public and 20 hours a week for church activities.

FFRF noted numerous public statements that the main use of the center would be for church activities.

“The primary effect is to help a church expand by funding new construction,” Seidel wrote. “In other words, the council gave WCC $1,300 to expand their church space.”

FFRF suspected the center would be another way to target children who would otherwise not attend WCC.

“The city had no safeguards against religious use or proselytization at the time the grant and waiver were approved, nor does the city have any way to ensure that YMCA involvement continues. WCC is leasing the space, setting the hours and has the final say in all decisions. Should they choose not to partner with the YMCA, the city has no recourse.”

The complaint letter noted other problems with the proposal, including waiver of fees, parking impacts, city officials in their official capacity sitting on a church advisory board and Councilor Jones’ ties to the church.

While the city has not formally responded, FFRF has learned the proposal is dead, at least for now.

According to an Oct. 2 story in the Oregonian, Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt told the newspaper the city decided to immediately rescind the grant to avoid controversy and a legal battle.

“Our options are either fight this or say, ‘Hey, $1,300 isn’t that much money,’ ” Wyatt said. “We’re chalking this up as a learning experience.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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