AU Urges Court To Rule Against Detroit Church Funding

Municipal governments should not be in the business of steering tax money to houses of worship, an Americans United attorney told a federal appeals court recently.

Richard B. Katskee, AU’s assistant legal director, argued before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals March 5 that the city of Detroit acted unconstitutionally when it gave tax aid to three downtown churches in 2006.  

The money was ostensibly given so the churches could spruce up their property prior to the Super Bowl. It was used mainly for landscaping and lighting upgrades.

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief along with six other organizations in the American Atheists, Inc. v. City of Detroit Downtown Development Authority case and was invited to share in the argument before the appellate panel.  

Katskee told the judges that no court has ever ruled that government can spend tax money to repair and maintain churches. He urged the judges to uphold the separation of church and state.

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Religious Right legal group, insists that the funding is legal because it was offered to an array of downtown property owners. Founded by a group of television and radio preachers in 1993, the ADF is unremittingly hostile to church-state separation, insisting that the principle is not found in the Constitution.

A federal court ruled that the aid did not have the primary effect of advancing religion. American Atheists, which filed the lawsuit, appealed that ruling.

In its brief, Americans United argued that religion has historically been supported by voluntary donations.

“[T]he grant recipients here are not just religiously affiliated: They are full-fledged churches,” asserted the brief. “So the district court’s approval of public funding for repairs would have been especially noxious to those who adopted the First Amendment…. And it would have been equally offensive to those who sought to maintain their cherished religious freedom by ensuring that their houses of worship could never develop an unhealthy dependence on governmental largesse.”  

The brief draws extensively on history and cites the works of religious liberty pioneers such as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Williams and others.