Kevin Caruthers was all set to start up a new whiskey distillery in Etowah, Tennessee last year. He put $200,000 into the business and Hillborn Crafted Spirits was preparing to open for business. But in October, after intense opposition from the North Etowah Baptist Church, the city commissioners voted 3-2 to prohibit alcohol production within city limits. (I’m sure it was purely coincidental that two of the commissioners were members of that church…)
Even though Caruthers had been issued a permit before the vote, the dream of a distillery was dashed.
“They started pitching a fit about that, equating that if we establish a business there, then we’re going to increase the violence, and the drunk driving and everything else here in town,” Caruthers added.
I’ve never heard Baptists use that same logic when it comes to the opening of a gun shop…
Anyway, Caruthers sued the city. Mayor Burke Garwood must have known what the commission did was illegal. Not only is prohibition long over, the commission was basically doing what the church wanted. It was a complete violation of the Establishment Clause.
By March, the city reversed course and voted to let Caruthers open up his distillery, and earlier this month, a settlement was finally reached: the city would pay Caruthers $42,800 in addition to court costs, basically for wasting his time and forcing him to hire attorneys.
Here’s where things get really interesting.
Mayor Garwood is now asking the North Etowah Baptist Church to cover the costs, since this was all their fault.
“As per the oath of office for the City of Etowah, I pledged to do what is in the best interest for the City of Etowah,” Garwood said. “With that thought in mind, I am calling for North Etowah Baptist Church to make a contribution to the City of Etowah in the amount of $45,000 to compensate the city for the funding which was lost due to the Hillborn lawsuit settlement.”
He asked that the “contribution” be spread out in $15,000 increments to the Etowah Carnegie Library, Etowah Area Senior Citizens Center and Etowah Parks and Recreation Department.
“Finally, I am requesting North Etowah Baptist Church to issue a sincere apology to the citizens of the City of Etowah for creating so much turmoil in our city by crossing the line between church and state,” Garwood concluded. “The actions of a few have caused pain and aggravation for so many more.”
To be sure, the church doesn’t owe the city anything no matter how the mayor frames it. Members had every right to complain.
It’s the fault of the commissioners for taking them seriously. Even though two commissioners are church members, they were wearing their Elected Official hats when they made the decision, and it’s the fault of the taxpayers for electing these people to office.
Church leaders haven’t responded to the mayor’s request, but I don’t expect they’ll hand over the cash anytime soon.
Maybe the better question is how many of the church’s members will become customers at the distillery, set to open this summer.