A Big ADF Win – For the Money and the Principle of the Thing

Inside the Issues with Alan Sears

Alan Sears, Esquire

ADF President, CEO, & General Counsel

June 2, 2009
The Super Bowl was coming to town in the winter of '06, and Detroit wanted everything just so. Toward that end, they offered local property-owners an incentive:  spruce up your exteriors, and the city will reimburse you for half of the reasonable improvements that enhance the general urban milieu, up to a certain amount.

St. John's Episcopal Church said amen to the idea, contracted with the city, and went to work on its grounds and facilities.  Detroit officials were pleased with the results and prepared to pay the agreed-to reimbursement.

But American Atheists heard of the transaction and filed a suit against the city, contending that, by reimbursing money to a church for the improvements, the city was violating the First Amendment. (Americans United for Separation of Church and State loved that and couldn't resist piling on with a friend-of-the-court brief of their own.)

The city withheld the money from the church, which had taken out a loan to pay for the agreed-to improvements, and now needed the reimbursement to pay the loan back.  The Alliance Defense Fund came to their aid, defending the churches' inclusion in the revitalization plan.

In August 2007, a federal district court ruled that the church should receive most of the money promised by the city, but not the entire reimbursement. ADF attorneys and the city appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit to secure the entire reimbursement for the church.  And last week, the 6th Circuit ruled against American Atheists.

"Churches shouldn't be penalized just because groups that don't like their beliefs choose to ignore the Constitution," said ADF Legal Counsel Dale Schowengerdt. "The church was simply responding to the city's plan for property improvements before the Super Bowl to present a positive image of the city. The reimbursement promised to the church was for non-religious purposes and did not violate the First Amendment."

"That the program includes, rather than excludes, several churches among its many other recipients helps 'ensure neutrality, not threaten it,'" wrote the court in its opinion. "No reasonable, reasonably informed observer, moreover, would infer from the churches' participation in this program, alongside and on equal terms with dozens of secular entities, that the agency endorsed or approved of the churches' religious views.

"Excluding the churches from taking part in the program," the court added, "would send a far stronger message – a message not of endorsement but of disapproval."

Please join me in praying that all of the U.S. courts hearing cases against Christians who freely express their faith and openly participate in their communities would bring such thoughtful legal wisdom to bear.