Atheists Fight Kansas City Grant to Baptists

      KANSAS CITY, Mo. (CN) — American Atheists sued Kansas City, Mo. in Federal Court to stop the City Council from giving $65,000 in tax money to a local ministry to help host the Baptist National Convention.
     The City Council voted in April “to pay $65,000 in municipal funds from the Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund (‘NTDF’) to Modest Miles Ministries, Inc. in aid and support of the National Baptist Convention,” the nonprofit atheist group says in its July 22 complaint.
     Modest Miles is a Baptist minister and chairman of the Kansas City Local Host Committee of the National Baptist Convention.
     He applied for, and was given, the grant through his charitable organization, Modest Miles Ministries, to offset the costs of transportation for conventioneers in September.
     American Atheists calls it an “unconstitutional expenditure” of tax dollars.
     “Defendants’ expenditure of funds from the public treasury in the amount of $65,000 for the National Baptist Convention, if paid, would impermissibly aid the national Baptist institution and advance its religious purpose in violation of plaintiffs’ right to be free from compelled support of religious institutions and activities,” the group says.
     New Jersey-based American Atheists, which claims 350,000 “members and supporters,” including taxpayers in Kansas City, advocates for the civil rights of atheists and separation of religion and government.
     “Aiding religious activities establishes support of religion,” the group says in the lawsuit. “Defendants authorized this grant in aid of religion in spite of the fact it fails to comply with NTDF program criteria.”
     When American Atheists protested to the City Council in April, through counsel, they say, they received a letter from the assistant city attorney that stated: “It has been represented to the NTDF Board that there are secular events that will be held during the National Baptist Convention that funding has been requested by the modest Miles Ministries, Inc. If funding is approved the City will require Modest Miles Ministries, Inc. to provide documentation of what secular events such monies were used for reimbursement.”
     That’s not good enough, the atheists say, citing the First Amendment and the Missouri Constitution. They also cite the ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley, upheld by the Eighth Circuit in 2015, in which this court refused to allow public money to be spent on a Lutheran day care. The Federal Court found that the state “appropriately denied the grant under Article I, § 7 of the Missouri Constitution, even where the purpose of the grant (to improve playground surfaces) was wholly secular, because the Lutheran Church used the day care to inculcate its religious beliefs to attendees,” according to the complaint.
     The $65,000 payment has not been made yet, but a final contract was due in July.
     American Atheists seek declaratory judgment and an injunction stopping disbursement of the grant funds “for the sole purpose of aiding and supporting the National Baptist Convention in violation of the Establishment Clause, the Equal Protection Clause” and the Missouri Constitution. They are represented by Karen Donnelly with Copilevitz & Canter

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