The city of Versailles, Kentucky, just west of Lexington, wants to use about $1.2 million in relief money that came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to build a new tornado shelter to help residents in case of a future disaster.
That all sounds reasonable. That’s the sort of thing you want the government to do.
Here’s the problem: The land they want to build the shelter on happens to be owned by First Baptist Church. And now the city and church have struck up a deal to basically build an extension of the church that would primarily be used for worship… unless there’s an emergency, in which case it would be used as a shelter.
In other words, $1.2 million in taxpayer money is going to be used to build a bigger church that the government can use part-time (but only if needed).
No one is denying this. The disagreement is over whether or not this is legal.
A monolithic dome that could hold 2,000 people would be built on 5 acres of the land to serve as the church’s sanctuary and as a severe weather shelter that could withstand 250 mph winds. The church that has about 500 members and attracted about 150 worshipers on Sundays before the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, said Rev. Floyd Greene, pastor of First Baptist Church since May 1986.
Vesailles Mayor Brian Traugott said he sees the project as “use of public funds to build a much-needed public tornado shelter. It’s on church land and they brought the matter to City Hall. It doesn’t matter to me if the church or a ping-pong facility also uses the building as long we have a shelter in place.”
It may not matter to Traugott, but it does matter to people who care about the law. If the government is giving me a seven-figure dollar amount to expand my church — covering roughly 87% of the cost — and all I have to do is allow them to use the space every now and then, I’m taking that deal because I’m the one who benefits. It’s obviously an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. (It would never work if the city decided to expand a mosque the same way because Christians would be making the exact same argument.)
Maybe you’re wondering why they can’t just build the shelter elsewhere. The mayor says the church’s land is the ideal spot:
“It’s a perfect location. It’s near the Housing Authority in a low-income district where many of the homes don’t have basements or crawl spaces for shelter,” he added. “The only public building we have now that could stand high winds is the police shelter and we could not get hundreds into it.”
That’s not a compelling enough reason to override constitutional concerns, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is now warning the city before it goes through with this. The FFRF has already issued a records request for more information but they’re also making it clear this is a fight they would win in court:
“We understand the city’s desire to build a severe weather shelter, but this purported secular goal does not excuse the fact that the government is building a new church building that will be used for religious worship, which violates taxpayers’ right to secular use of government funds,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line has written to Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott. “It is also unconstitutional to use federal grant funds for this purpose, given that the severe weather shelter would also serve as the church’s sanctuary, directing federal funds directly to support religious worship.”
“The Kentucky Constitution states outright that no person may ‘be compelled to attend any place of worship, to contribute to the erection or maintenance of any such place,’” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “This unconstitutional boondoggle must be deep-sixed.”
FFRF has also written a letter directly to FEMA calling on the government agency to rescind the grant money that’s being considered for this new church, especially if the agency was misled about why the city needed the cash.
“FEMA may not spend a good chunk of taxpayer money on erecting a building that will primarily be used for worship,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “Nonbelievers, non-Christians — and Christians who are not Baptist — must not be forced to finance a sectarian religious structure.”
If the church owns the land and the main purpose of the relief money would be to help people worship — regardless of its other uses — it’s a clear-cut problem. It also creates more issues down the line: People who aren’t Christian, who may one day need to use the emergency shelter, shouldn’t have to be surrounded by religious icons or signs pressuring them to accept Jesus. (When school districts have rented churches for graduation ceremonies, that’s exactly the kind of problem that has arisen.)
Unless the city can show there’s literally no other venue for a shelter, and no other options available to them, they’re going to have a hard time getting away with this in court. They would be better off not wasting money on a pointless legal battle and just finding a new solution before this one blows up in their faces.
(Screenshot via Google Maps)