A religious group dropped plans to use tax funds to distribute bags of food containing Bibles and evangelistic tracts in Baltimore after Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed suit last month.
The litigation was filed after Americans United got wind of a decision by Mayor Martin O’Malley and the Baltimore City Council to earmark a special appropriation of $297,500 for a meeting of the National Baptist Convention in the city. In public documents, the funding was described as payment for the Baptist group’s “Bags of Love Outreach,” a program that distributes bags filled with food, Bibles and “salvation tracts” to people at Maryland homeless shelters and missions.
Attorneys with Americans United tried repeatedly to persuade Baltimore officials not to allocate tax funds for an evangelistic effort.
Americans United Assistant Legal Director Richard Katskee urged city officials to repeal the appropriation and direct public dollars “to a community organization that will use the money solely to help meet the needs of Baltimore’s most vulnerable residents, without exploiting the opportunity to proselytize or engage in other religious activities at taxpayer expense.”
But city leaders rebuffed AU’s appeals, leading to the lawsuit.
Court papers were filed June 9 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland on behalf of five taxpayers and city residents.
“It is wrong to require taxpayers to support evangelism,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Feeding the hungry is a commendable governmental undertaking, but using public funds to hand out Bibles and religious tracts is not. This city appropriation clearly violates the separation of church and state.”
Americans United’s lawsuit asked the federal court to find Baltimore’s grant of public funds to the “Bags of Love Outreach” program a violation of the First Amendment and to issue an injunction barring the city from providing any financial support for the Baptist convention’s religious work.
When word of the lawsuit hit the media, a Baptist official insisted that the organization did not intend to include religious material with the food. The Rev. Theresa Mercer told the Baltimore Sun that the evangelism plan had been changed.
At a hearing a week later, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett rejected AU’s request for a temporary restraining order to block the distribution but mandated that program participants be barred from proselytizing or handing out religious literature. (Person v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore)