Americans United Warns Idaho City Against Salvation Army Deal

Americans United has warned officials in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, that a proposed land-swap agreement to facilitate the construction of a Salvation Army community center may not pass constitutional muster.

City residents contacted Americans United about the arrangement in February. The proposal calls for the city to give a 12-acre parcel of land worth about $1 million to the Salvation Army and spend $3 million preparing it for construction. In return, the city would receive nine acres of land owned by a local parks foundation.

The Salvation Army is a religious denomination, and its proposal calls for a chapel to be included in the community center. Americans United says care must be taken to make sure that tax funds do not subsidize religious activities.

When word of AU’s concerns were reported in local newspapers, City Attorney Mike Gridley defended the arrangement.

Gridley told the Spokesman Review in Spokane, Wash., "I think this is just a scare tactic from this organization."

Americans United attorneys countered that documents about the proposed deal have been requested. In a letter to the Coeur d’Alene Press, Heather Weaver, AU litigation counsel, noted that the group’s concerns spring from "substantial information we have gathered from media reports, legal research and from individuals in the community."

Added Weaver, "We want to ensure that the project is not stalled or prohibited by the courts at some point down the road because the city refused to exercise a modicum of caution now. We are asking city officials to work with us to make certain that the commands of the Constitution are respected in Coeur d’Alene. It is a reasonable request that should be heeded by city officials."

The community center is being built mainly with funds provided by the Kroc Foundation. The foundation was formed by Joan Kroc, the widow of Ray Kroc, who founded the McDonalds fast-food chain. Joan Kroc, who died in 2003, left $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army in her will. The religious group is using the money to build community centers in cities all over the country.