Annapolis City Council members plan to vote Friday on whether to reinstate a $5,000 community grant for Eastport United Methodist Church.
Though the money is just a drop in the city’s nearly $175 million budget, slated to pass Friday, the grant has sparked considerable debate. The church and some council members pushed back against city attorney Mike Lyles, who advised against giving money to Methodists to help fund a “community coordinator” position at the church.
In a statement on Thursday, Lyles said he continued to oppose donating money to the church for the community coordinator position.
“There remains the legal opinion of the Law Office that this purpose, the payment of the direct salary of a church employee, does not meet either a constitutional test or a code of the city of Annapolis,” Lyles said.
In an op-ed published in the Capital Gazette on Wednesday, Susan Schneider, the church’s resource officer, argued that the position should be eligible for funding because the current community coordinator “is not engaged in any religious activities” and “is not a member of Eastport UCM.” Schneider also pointed out that the church is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, which means it is exempt from federal income tax. .
But constitutional law experts across the liberal and conservative spectrum agree that no matter how the issue unfolds, all parties involved seem to be misinterpreting what matters most when it comes to of the separation of Church and State.
“Would you be surprised to learn that they are both wrong?” said Ian Smith, a staff attorney for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who witnessed a heated debate between Lyles and Alderman Sheila Finlayson, a Ward 4 Democrat who argued the council should give money to churches, “when they support us and when they support the community.
The exchange from the May 26 council business meeting is available on YouTube.
Smith said Lyles deserves credit for flagging the Eastport Methodist grant as potentially unconstitutional. However, he also read Schneider’s op-ed, and he thinks the city’s leading attorney erred in defining his original argument about whether or not the church has 501(c)3 status, either. for itself or for an affiliated non-profit organization.
“The grant recipient’s identity or tax status doesn’t matter, what they use the money for matters,” Smith said.
Bradley P. Jacob, professor of constitutional law at Regent University, a leading evangelical university, agreed that how the money will be used is the crucial question, as well as whether non-religious groups have been given comparable opportunities. “The devil is in the details,” Jacob said.
As a lawyer, Jacob worked on a contract basis for Anne Arundel County and other municipalities. He cited Trinity Lutheran v. Comer from the United States Supreme Court in 2017 as a good example of a case where a government entity overstepped by refusing to support a church.
In a 7-2 decision, the court found that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources erred in refusing Trinity Lutheran Church’s recycled tire mulch for its learning center’s playground . Comparable non-religious kindergartens received rubber mulch as part of the program. While it was true that Trinity Lutheran included religious instruction in its curriculum, that did not mean the state would endorse Lutheranism by providing the church with playground mulch, the majority of justices decided.
“You don’t want to deny them a benefit that they would otherwise receive just because they are a church,” Jacob said.
Both lawyers agree that government funding for a program affiliated with a religious organization is more likely to be constitutional than government funding for a person, and that may be the problem with Eastport United Methodist.
A church can say the employee is not engaging in religious activities, as Eastport United Methodist argues, but Smith said the stipulation is nearly impossible to enforce. “Suppose the employee works for the church and is asked to pray with someone? So what’s going on? the lawyer applied. “We don’t feel there are adequate safeguards.”
If the city gives grants to other organizations to fund staff salaries, then it might be okay to give the money to Eastport Methodist, Jacob said, but even then the church should be prepared to give back. thoroughly account.
“The city could definitely ask for documents and say, ‘We want to know what this person is spending their time on,'” Jacob said. “You know, are they standing on a street corner, handing out religious tracts and trying to convert people to the gospel? As a Christian, I might like that, but that’s not what government money should be for.
In addition to arguing that its community coordinator does not engage in religious activities, Eastport Methodist argues that it should be eligible to receive a grant because Heritage Baptist Church should also receive a share of the $342,000 in community grants. But the city’s chief financial officer, Jodee Dickinson, pointed out that the Baptist grant is intended to support Backpack Buddies, a national program that matches churches and community groups with students who receive free lunches to ensure that these children also have nutritious meals at home.
All Annapolis Community Grant recipients are required to submit tracking reports detailing how the money was spent. Although the grant application is available online, the city declined to share tracking documents Thursday.
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In addition to requiring follow-up reports, Smith said government entities can include language prohibiting religious activities in contracts organizations sign, and should consider visiting beneficiaries. “They have the right to come and do inspections,” Smith said.
In a marathon 12-hour budget meeting on Monday, the council again spent more than 30 minutes debating the situation of Eastport Methodists. They voted to reallocate Methodist money to a nonprofit called Superior Futures and made other adjustments to community grants as recommended by the finance committee. But they also agreed to have city staff reconsider the Eastport Methodists’ request and plan to hold another vote on returning the money to the church on Friday.
Council members seem divided on the issue. Ward 7 Alderman Rob Savidge agreed with the City Attorney’s advice. “As an atheist, I’m concerned about giving money directly to a church,” the Democrat said.
But his Ward 8 counterpart, Democrat Ross Arnett, disagreed.
“It’s a community that works very actively with people in need,” Arnett said.