Americans United Lawsuit Challenges Baltimore City Funding Of Baptist Outreach Program

Taxpayer Money For Distribution Of 'Bags Of Love' That Include Bibles And Salvation Tracts Violates Constitution, AU Tells Federal Court

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop the City of Baltimore from using public funds to pay for a Baptist group’s religious outreach program.

On June 2, Mayor Martin O’Malley approved the Baltimore City Council’s special appropriation of $297,500 for the National Baptist Convention. The funding is earmarked for the Baptist group’s “Bags of Love Outreach,” a program that distributes bags filled with food, a Bible and “salvation tracts” to people at Maryland homeless shelters and missions.

The Americans United lawsuit was filed late Friday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland on behalf of five taxpayers who believe that government funding of evangelism violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

“It is wrong to require taxpayers to support evangelism,” said the Rev. 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 asks the federal court to find Baltimore’s grant of public funds to the “Bags of Love Outreach” program a violation of the First Amendment principle of church-state separation and to issue an injunction barring the city from paying out the challenged appropriation or otherwise providing any financial support for the Baptist convention’s religious work.

Also named in the lawsuit is the National Baptist Convention, which plans to deliver bags of food and religious material to more than 1,000 people in 18 missions and shelters throughout Maryland.  

Americans United had warned city officials and denominational leaders that the grant to the religious project might lead to litigation. In a June 5 letter, Americans United advised Baltimore officials that the appropriation violates the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.

“The appropriation provides direct cash support for an inherently religious activity namely, the attempt to convert the needy by using gifts of food as the vehicle to provide them with a Bible and salvation tracts,” wrote Americans United Assistant Legal Director Richard Katskee.

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.”

Americans United also sent a June 6 letter to Baptist denominational officials urging them to reject city funding. Katskee wrote that he hoped the Baptist group would decline the government subsidy out of respect for the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.

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.

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.