(CN) – The city of Detroit did not violate the Constitution by allocating $737,000 to three churches that joined a development program to spruce up downtown buildings in preparation for the 2006 Super Bowl at Ford Field, the 6th Circuit ruled. “Detroit sought to fix up its downtown, not establish a religion,” Judge Sutton wrote.
The federal appeals court in Cincinnati rejected a challenge brought by the American Atheists, who sought to bar the city from granting any money to religious organizations.
Ford Field and Comerica Park were built in the late 1990s as part of an effort to boost the local economy. Detroit hoped to draw attention to its new stadiums by putting in bids to host major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, the All-Star Game and the NCAA Final Four.
When the National Football League accepted the offer for the 2006 Super Bowl, the city launched an incentive program aimed at cleaning up downtown buildings and parking lots. The city’s Downtown Development Authority agreed to reimburse property owners up to 50 percent of the costs of refurbishing their buildings.
The three churches that participated in the program were granted 6.4 percent, or about $737,000, of the $11.5 million allocated for the downtown makeover.
The plaintiff atheist group, which says it’s “dedicated to the separation of church and state, argued that the city’s decision to grant money to religious organizations violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The district court backed the city on all but two of its reimbursement grants: the costs of improving outdoor signs at the three churches, and the costs of replacing storm windows at an Episcopal church.
The federal appeals court first established that the plaintiff had standing to sue, despite a general rule that federal taxpayers can’t challenge how their money is spent. Judge Sutton pointed to an exception for municipal taxpayers, who, like shareholders in a private corporation, have an immediate interest in how the city spends their money.
The reimbursement program passed constitutional muster, the court ruled, because it was religiously neutral, it applied to all buildings in the area, and it did not have the purpose or effect of advancing religion.
“When the government endorses everything, it endorses nothing,” Sutton wrote.
“The thrust of the program goes to façade, not to substance, to giving the exterior of the buildings a clean, up-to-date appearance,” the judge added. “There is no such thing as a Potemkin church, synagogue or mosque.”
The court also reversed judgment for the plaintiff over the outdoor signs and storm windows.
Sutton rejected the notion that Detroit’s program flouted the will of the founding fathers. Instead, Sutton said the “better historical question” is to imagine what the ratifiers of the Constitution would have thought of the atheists’ position: That the Bill of Rights prevents Detroit from extending its program to all buildings, regardless of who owned them.
“The Establishment Clause requires neutrality toward religion, not hostility,” Sutton concluded.