FFRF wants Knoxville to rescind massive theocratic giveaway

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging one of Tennessee’s most prominent cities to nix a proposed multimillion giveaway to a theocratic organization.

A concerned local taxpayer informed FFRF that the city of Knoxville is partnering with the Emerald Youth Foundation to construct a “multipurpose facility and sports complex” in the Lonsdale neighborhood of Knoxville, which will take up ten acres. The city of Knoxville is planning to contribute $2 million toward this project, which will include donating land to the Emerald Youth Foundation and “streetscaping” the surrounding area to support the project, but the Emerald Youth Foundation will own and operate the facility. Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero appeared publicly to support the project and promote the city’s partnership with the Emerald Youth Foundation.

The Emerald Youth Foundation describes itself as a Christian, urban youth ministry that “desire[s] to raise up a large number of urban youth to love Jesus Christ.” The ministry’s proposed facility will include a “worship and performing arts area.” Even the facility’s sports activities will almost certainly include religious promotion; Emerald Youth Sports openly states that it mission is “to mobilize athletes to become Christian leaders.”

The city of Knoxville violates both the U.S. and the Tennessee Constitutions when it endorses the project, donates land to the ministry in order to build the facility and expends taxpayer funds toward the project.

“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from financially supporting churches,” FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to Knoxville Vice Mayor Duane Grieve. “Further, the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that the First Amendment ‘mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’ Promoting or otherwise endorsing the Emerald Youth Foundation’s religious project fails to respect this constitutional mandate of neutrality.”

Furthermore, the Tennessee Constitution also prohibits the city from financially assisting churches. The Supreme Court of Tennessee has held that Article I, Section 3 of the state Constitution provides a “substantially stronger guaranty of religious freedoms” than the federal Establishment Clause. When the city of Knoxville conveys government property to a ministry, and contributes taxpayer funds toward a project that aims to convert area youth to Christianity, it unconstitutionally compels taxpayers to support that ministry and shows the city’s preference for the ministry’s religious message.

If the Emerald Youth Foundation wishes to construct a sports and worship facility on city-owned land in order to further its religious mission, it must purchase that land at fair market value and fund the project itself. And the city may not promote or otherwise endorse this sort of religious project. Alternatively, Knoxville could partner with a secular group to construct a secular multipurpose facility at this location.

“Municipal bodies can easily embark on worthy initiatives without jeopardizing the Constitution,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “There are organizations available to partner for such ventures that do not seek to impose their beliefs.”

FFRF wants an immediate termination of the city of Knoxville’s partnership in this religious project.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that works to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, has more than 28,000 members and chapters across the country, including 350-plus in Tennessee and a local chapter, FFRF East Tennessee.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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