Americans United Warns Wisconsin City Not To Fund Salvation Army Shelter

Government Cannot Pay For Building Where Religious Activities Take Place, Watchdog Group Tells Janesville Council

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged officials in Janesville, Wisc., not to allocate $250,000 in federal money for a Salvation Army shelter where religious programs will take place.

The Janesville City Council had earlier voted to help purchase a building for the Salvation Army but mandated that the group not conduct religious activities at the site. Army officials have refused to meet that condition. Council members are weighing whether they are willing to meet the Salvation Army's demands.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said the Constitution protects taxpayers from being forced to support religion and protects vulnerable citizens from having religion imposed on them.

"People who need help should be able to get that assistance without being pressured to listen to sermons," said Lynn. "If the Salvation Army's goal is to win souls, it must pay for that with its own money and not expect subsidies from the taxpayers.

"Government officials are right to insist on accountability and constitutional safeguards when they spend public dollars," Lynn said.

In a May 11 letter to Council President Russ Steeber and other council members, Americans United warned that the proposed arrangement is constitutionally problematic.

"The City Council is constitutionally obliged to require the Salvation Army not to promote religion in any way with federal funds or on premises paid for with federal funds," observed Americans United Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser. "The cardinal rule of the [First Amendment's] Establishment Clause is that governmental action cannot be used to advance religion."

Americans United maintains that while residents of the housing project would have the right to pray and engage in religious worship on their own, such activities could not be directed by Salvation Army officials at a taxpayer-funded site.

"We therefore advise the City of Janesville to continue to require that all recipients of government aid abide by the constitutional prohibition against promotion of religion with federal funds or on premises paid for with federal funds," continues the letter. "Granting the $250,000 to the Salvation Army without such conditions would be a violation of the Constitution."

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.