FFRF contests unconstitutional plan to use public funds to buy commercial property and donate it to a religious school
A proposal for the city of South Bend, Ind., to buy a commercial property and donate it to a Catholic school violates the U.S. and state constitutions, says a complaint to the city from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
In a June 14 letter to Common Council President Derek Dieter, FFRF objected on behalf of its members in South Bend and Indiana to a plan put forth by Mayor Stephen Luecke.
The proposal calls for the city to spend $1.2 million to buy and demolish a Family Dollar Store and then turn the property over to St. Joseph’s Catholic High School, which would use the land for new athletic facilities, including a football stadium.
On a 5-3 vote on June 13, the council refused to kill the plan and will take it up again, possibly at the June 27 meeting.
In FFRF’s letter, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott noted that the city “cannot legally subsidize the creation of a religious school campus.”
The U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause prohibits “enacting laws that do not have a secular legislative purpose or that have the primary effect of advancing religion,” Elliott said, citing Lemon v. Kurtzman and other federal cases.
The proposal also violates the Indiana Constitution, noted Elliott, due to these sections:
- No preference shall be given, by law, to any creed, religious society, or mode of worship; and no person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support, any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, against his consent.
- No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.
“Mayor Luecke’s scheme to assist in building the school is an affront to these provisions of the Indiana Bill of Rights,” Elliott wrote. “Apparently, the plan calls for spending income tax revenue from the Economic Development Income Tax Fund to acquire property that the city will then give to a religious school. Thus, these taxpayer funds would be used to directly ‘benefit’ a religious institution.”
St. Joseph’s Principal Susan Richter recently sent an email to parents and alumni of the school, asking them to lobby the council. Her message said:
Part of this current budget proposal includes $1.2 million to acquire the Family Dollar Store along LaSalle Street and gifting it to Saint Joseph’s High School. . . . We have been working with the Mayor’s office for several months on this aspect of our new school project. If Mayor Luecke’s budget is rejected, essentially it will add an additional $1.2 million to our campaign plus what constructions costs are added to the project due to the delay in acquiring that piece of land. [emphasis added)
In a separate letter to Luecke, FFRF filed an open records request for correspondence related to the proposed property acquisition and transfer.
Some residents, including S.J. Szabo, have spoken out strongly against the plan. Szabo was quoted in the South Bend Tribune: ”It’s a very generous donation to the Catholic church, that will pull even more students from South Bend schools. Whatever happened to separation of church and state? Are we going to generously donate to a Jewish school too so they can draw away more of our students?”
The proposal is clearly unconstitutional, Elliott said. “The Common Council must reject the mayor’s plan to subsidize the construction of the St. Joseph High School campus.”