St. Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka, Alaska is in need of money for renovations, and earlier this month, they were on the verge of getting a $5,000 gift from the city’s elected officials. The Sitka Assembly approved the donation a couple of weeks ago after their attorney determined that this would not violate any laws involving church/state separation.
[City attorney Brian] Hanson also determined the donation passed the “Lemon Test,” taken from the 1971 Supreme Court Case Lemon vs. Kurtzman as a “church v. state” barometer for the lower courts. Applying the three-prongs of the “Lemon Test,” Hanson said it passed because the donation 1) is for a secular (public purpose), 2) neither advances nor inhibits religion, and 3) does not result in excessive entanglement of the municipality with religion.
The ordinance passed on first reading by a vote of 5-2, with Steven Eisenbeisz and Aaron Bean voting against. It will come up again at the Assembly’s last meeting of the year on December 26th.
The problem with that line of thinking, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is that the grant would indeed advance religion. By giving money to restore a church — money that came from the Visitor’s Enhancement Fund, which is supposed to improve sites for tourism — the city was effectively promoting the religion.
Unlike the Supreme Court’s verdict in Trinity Lutheran, you couldn’t even argue that there was a secular purpose for this taxpayer-funded grant, as the Court determined with a church’s playground. This was just helping a church be a church.
In a letter to that attorney, FFRF’s Ryan D. Jayne explained the problem with his thinking and urged him not to lead the city into a losing court battle.
If Sitka residents are concerned about the degradation of an iconic church that is still used as a house of worship, they must raise private funds to finance repairs, as one Assembly member reportedly intends to do, acknowledging that “giving away other people’s money is so easy.”
The message the City of Sitka has communicated to its citizens is that churches will be rewarded if they neglect their duties as landowners and community members and fail to maintain their buildings. We ask that you consider this issue carefully and advise the Assembly that funding church repairs will needlessly expose the city to legal liability.
The letter, while accurate, wasn’t necessarily persuasive. At Tuesday’s meeting, Hanson still wrongly insisted the grant would not violate the law. However, he also pointed out that a lawsuit, even in victory, would end up costing the city more than the $5,000, making it economically foolish. That may just be a way to save face after getting schooled by another attorney.
But the good news is that Sitka officials knew better than to listen to him.
Though [Mayor Matthew] Hunter voiced his support, he said he was concerned the city could be sued if they moved ahead. “I did have an interaction with a gentleman on the street who was very passionate about the issue and said ‘I will sue you if you support this,” Hunter said.
Hanson said that though he believes the donation wouldn’t violate the first amendment and the city would be on solid legal ground, they may still be at risk of a lawsuit, which could be costly.
“This is only a 5000 dollar donation. I would suggest if a lawsuit is filed, it’s no longer economically viable to do this, no matter if you win or not,” said Hanson.
Ultimately, the measure failed 4-3, with Ben Miyasato, Bob Potrzuski and Richard Wein voting in favor, and Aaron Bean, Steven Eisenbeisz, Kevin Knox and Mayor Matt Hunter voting against.
The city did the right thing. It avoided a lawsuit and sent a message to the church that they would have to take care of their own renovations. It’s not the job of the taxpayers to fund the upkeep of a church that pays no taxes at all.
(Image via Google Maps. Thanks to Brian for the link)