December 2012 Church & State | People & Events

Americans United has told officials in Raleigh, N.C., not to provide tax funding to support a conference sponsored by a religious group.

Members of the Raleigh City Council held a closed-door meeting in October and voted to allocate $150,000 in public funds to subsidize a meeting of the Jehovah’s Witnesses at PNC Arena, the publication Indy Week reported.

The event, which is the religious denomination’s annual conference, would be held in 2013. Indy Week reported that this isn’t the first time the council awarded tax money to the Witnesses. In fact, since 2008, Raleigh has doled out $875,000 in tax dollars to the religious group for its gathering.

City officials justified the action by noting that the money goes to PNC Arena, not directly to a religious organization, and they say economic benefit is the rationale.

Americans United says that defense doesn’t wash.

“This seems like a plain violation of the separation of church and state and the Constitution,” AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser told Indy Week. “Government can’t fund religious meetings.”

Added Luchenitser, “You can’t ask the taxpayers to support a religious belief they don’t hold.” 

On Oct. 25, Luchenitser, Staff Attorney Ian Smith and AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan wrote to every member of the city council, asking them to end the grants.

The First Amendment, Khan, Luchenitser and Smith noted, “prohibits public officials or bodies from engaging in conduct that ‘has the purpose or effect of endorsing religion.’”

The AU attorneys added, “Even if the funds somehow were to be used to pay for secular items, this would not render the grants constitutional. The federal courts have held that government funds cannot constitutionally be used to pay for items that are themselves secular but support religious activity.”

City officials, however, may be reluctant to comply.

“The bottom line: if the group meets the strict funding criteria and contracts hotel rooms with our hotel partners while generating direct economic impact…we are open to possibly assisting regardless of the group type,” Loren Gold of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau told Indy Week.

Americans United is suspicious of that claim. On AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, Communications Associate Simon Brown asked, “What if a Muslim group wanted to bring thousands of people into Raleigh for a weekend of prayer and proselytizing? Would the city fund that convention? Seems pretty unlikely, but those are the kinds of requests a local government can get when it starts subsidizing religious activity.”