April 2012 Church & State | People & Events

A lawsuit challenging a plan by officials in South Bend, Ind., to give land to a religious school came to an end recently when a federal appeals court declared the matter legally moot.

Americans United and the Indiana ACLU filed a lawsuit last year on behalf of local taxpayers after South Bend officials approved a proposal to buy land in the city for $1.2 million and give it to the Catholic Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend. The diocese is in the process of building a new Catholic high school and wanted the property, which housed a Family Dollar store, for use as a sports field.

South Bend officials insisted that the plan was acceptable because members of the public would be allowed some use of the field. But Americans United objected, pointing out that St. Joseph’s High clearly serves a religious purpose.

The school requires all students to receive a Catholic education, including study in theology. All athletic competitions and practices are preceded by prayers consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church and are led by a priest when one is present. The school handbook encourages coaches to arrange for a prayer service or mass before games when feasible.

Americans United attorneys wrote to members of the South Bend Common Council several times and warned them that the deal was legally dubious and could spark litigation. The council voted 5-4 to approve it anyway.

A lawsuit, Wirtz v. City of South Bend, was filed, and U.S. District Judge Robert L. Miller Jr. struck down the plan in short order. Miller later invalidated another city proposal to sell the property to the diocese for $345,000.

Americans United and the ACLU maintained that the land must be sold at fair market value through a process open to all bidders. An auction was held, and the diocese submitted the sole bid, getting the land for the minimum price of $545,000.

The sale appeared to end the matter, but city officials filed an appeal of Miller’s ruling to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In February, the appeals court tossed the appeal out, holding that the matter was moot since the land has been sold. The court also said the appeal was untimely.