A plan by government officials in Pueblo West, Colo., to sell a parcel of land to a Roman Catholic church for a fraction of its value raises serious First Amendment concerns, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"This arrangement smacks of a sweetheart deal," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Government may not give religious groups this type of financial benefit."
The controversy centers around 8.4 acres of municipal land next to St. Paul the Apostle Church. The church has been attempting to buy the land since 1995. At that time, the land was worth $11,600. It is now valued at $200,000. Under an agreement struck with city officials, the church will get the land for the 1995 price.
In a letter faxed today to city officials, Americans United Litigation Counsel Ayesha Khan warned that selling the land to the church without competitive bidding could spark legal problems for the city.
"We believe that the sale would constitute a gross violation of constitutional principles and we request that you reconsider your decision so as to avoid legal action," wrote Khan.
Lynn agreed and called on municipal officials to rescind the sale agreement. "Government cannot get into the business of granting special favors and preferential treatment to certain religious groups," he said. "It violates the separation of church and state and raises a host of problems."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.