A church, a community pool, and a constitutional dispute
Florida city stalls on Baptist church’s pool grant request
One way to escape sweltering summer temperatures in Palatka, Fla., is to get in the water, but that may be difficult for many low-income residents this summer with the only free community pool closed. Earlier this month, Calvary Missionary Baptist Church requested a $35,000 grant from the small city south of Jacksonville to restore the pool to operating condition, but city leaders concerned about mixing public funds with religion have held up the proposal.
At a town commissioners meeting last Thursday evening, town attorney Valeria Bland Thomas did not rule out funding the church’s request. Yet she cautioned against blurring distinctions between secular and religious activities—meaning the town is not yet ready to take the plunge.
Calvary’s pool since the early 2000s has been a part of the African American church’s Family Life Center—also home to basketball courts and other activities available for the community to use for free. In recent years it has fallen into disrepair and closed due to lack of funding for maintenance. Pastor Herbert Johnson asked town officials for a grant to repair it at a May 12 City Commission meeting. They seemed favorable, but support cooled after the town received a letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) questioning public funds going to a church.
Christopher Line, an attorney for the organization and author of the letter to Mayor Terrill Hill, bristled at the possibility that children might be influenced by swimming in the church’s pool. Line argued that funding the pool would be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. “Taxpayer funds should not be used to help a church recruit the City’s children,” he wrote. “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.”
First Liberty Institute attorney Jeremy Dys said that misreads the Constitution. Dys co-authored a separate letter last Tuesday to the town countering FFRF’s arguments. “This is a public benefit for which the church can compete, and for which it is entitled to receive should it meet the qualifications for it,” he said. “What the city cannot do is condition the receipt of that public benefit upon them renouncing their faith or otherwise agreeing to limit their religious conduct.”
Even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis got involved in the dispute. Ryan Newman, a lawyer for DeSantis, followed with his own letter Wednesday evening to the city, urging it to disregard the religious nature of the church in ruling on the funding request, reported the Palatka Daily News.
First Liberty’s argument in defense of Calvary Missionary Baptist Church is rooted in a 2017 Supreme Court ruling, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, where a church applied to a government grant program open to religious and nonreligious schools to help resurface its playground. In ruling in favor of the church, the court made clear that the establishment clause is not violated just because the benefits of the school’s playground would “extend beyond its students to the local community, whose children often use[d] the playground during nonschool hours.”
In its 2020 ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the high court upheld a Montana tuition assistance program that benefited students who attended religious schools. In a 5-4 decision, the majority concluded that “the Establishment Clause is not offended when religious observers and organizations benefit from neutral government programs.”
First Liberty’s Dys said Pastor Johnson is hopeful the town ultimately will approve the church’s request. “They’re eager to be able to serve their community, but it’s really difficult to have a pool that they want to use to serve their community that doesn’t function.”
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