There’s always a question of where atheists should draw the line on church/state separation cases. If the media attention will make atheists look bad, or the entanglement is helping a lot of people, is it really worth pursuing?
My answer has always been yes — because the moment you let something slide, Christians will inevitably use it to justify a more egregious violation.
Keep that in mind when you hear what’s happening in Placer County, California. Officials there want to donate 26 acres of land to a group so they can build a “campus shelter” to house the local homeless population. It’s clearly a wonderful cause.
But the group in question is the Placer Rescue Mission, a Christian non-profit that intends to build a chapel in the shelter. This donation would effectively promote Christianity while also helping the homeless.
“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from financially supporting churches,” FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to the county’s legal counsel. “The California Constitution also explicitly prohibits the county from donating real estate to churches.”
County property should never be transferred to religious institutions for less than fair market value, FFRF emphasizes. Once the government enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faiths and no religion to support a particular expression of worship.
“No matter how seemingly noble the purpose, a county can’t just gift a big parcel of property to a religious institution,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “There are plenty of secular organizations doing similar work where the First Amendment of the Constitution is not at stake.”
If the religious organization agrees not to proselytize through the shelter, or the city sells them the land at market value, the exchange would likely face no legal problems. As it stands, Placer County will be breaking the law, albeit for a good cause. It’s unfortunate they chose this route, but it’s not too late to do the legal thing while still helping the people who need it.
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