The city of Fitchburg, Wisconsin has a program called the Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative which aims to improve three specific parts of the city with respect to opportunity, diversity, and sustainability. Not a bad idea at all.
Earlier this year, however, they gave a $10,000 grant to Chapel Valley Church to offset the cost of various events. The church said on its application that these events would be secular in nature — group lunches, a job fair, community movies, etc. It was a way to bring people together.
But when the Freedom From Religion Foundation looked into it, they found that the events were indeed religious. According to a sermon that was published (and since deleted) from the church’s website, one pastor described this project as a way for “people to come to experience the joy of the Lord.” FFRF also heard these excerpts in the same sermon:
Imagine if all of us were there, and each one of us talked to three people, and each one of us prayed and ministered to three people. Just let the holy spirit — no pressure, the Lord will do it!
For each of these events, we try to spread the Word in as many ways as we can…
… What we are doing is both spiritual and practical.
There a way to rationalize all this by saying Christians are always spreading the Gospel just by being decent people. If we’re warm and welcoming, community members will notice and eventually join our church. That’s not proselytizing! That’s just a way to introduce ourselves to the public!
But it’s clear from the sermon that this is intended as a bait-and-switch. They’re offering community events with the sole purpose of painting a target on the backs of unchurched people who attend in order to win new converts. It’s indirect proselytizing. The end goal remains bringing people to Christ.
That’s why FFRF is saying the grant should be rescinded.
In a letter to Mayor Aaron Richardson, FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne has requested assurances that the city will terminate any existing contracts related to this project with the church, will not provide reimbursements for these religious events that have not already been paid and will not award any taxpayer funds to this church in the future.
“As you are certainly aware, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from financially supporting religious activities,” Jayne writes in his letter. “It is incumbent on the city to ensure that it funds only secular activities. Church-run social events intended to promote religion are not appropriate secular activities.”
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor comments, “Handing over $10,000 in public funds to a program that does a poor job of hiding its purpose to proselytize and promote religion is an affront to every Fitchburg taxpayer.”
Fitchburg officials say no money has been handed over yet. But a local news outlet reports that city staffers are “figuring out” if any money will be given to the church at all.
Again, you can expect the church to say there’s no open proselytizing happening at these events. But holding a community movie night for the sole purpose of making new friends in order to convert them is just proselytizing by another name.
That’s what they said behind closed doors. That’s what they conveniently did not write in the grant application. That what the sermon video (that we totally have a copy of because the internet is forever) shows.
City officials shouldn’t be foolish enough to fall for that ruse. Just save the money and give it to a group that doesn’t have some secret creepy end goal in mind. There’s no shortage of them.