Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the ACLU of Indiana and the national ACLU today asked a federal court to block an Indiana city's plan to use public funds in support of a religious school.
The South Bend Common Council voted 5-4 to spend $1.2 million to buy property that will be transferred to the Catholic Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend for $1. The land will be used by St. Joseph's High School to build a football stadium.
Such public funding of a religious school violates the church-state separation provisions of the U.S. and Indiana constitutions, the lawsuit charges.
Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, "Taxpayers should never be forced to support religion. If South Bend council members want to make a million-dollar donation to a religious school, they ought to dig into their own pockets, not those of the taxpayers. This action is just plain wrong."
Said Gavin M. Rose, staff attorney for the ACLU of Indiana, “The United States Constitution allows each person to participate in whatever religious activity he or she believes to be appropriate. It does not permit a city to spend $1.2 million of taxpayer money to finance a religious institution. That is precisely what South Bend has done.”
The Wirtz v. City of South Bend lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division.
The lawsuit notes that St. Joseph High 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.
Thus, the lawsuit argues, South Bend city funding of St. Joseph’s High unconstitutionally shows governmental preference for one religious institution over others and gives substantial direct aid to religious activities.
Said Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, “This million-dollar handout to a well-financed religious institution violates the separation of church and state in numerous ways. South Bend should abandon this ill-advised plan and instead use the taxpayer funds to address one of the city’s many public needs.”
Said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, “The Constitution clearly bars the government from unconditionally donating valuable assets to preferred religious institutions. Residents of South Bend should not expect that their tax money will be used to purchase land as a no-strings-attached gift to a religious school."
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include local taxpayers Roy Wirtz, Eric Brown, Tim DeLaney and Peter Reimers.
The attorneys representing the plaintiffs are Rose, Luchenitser and Mach, along with Indiana ACLU Legal Director Kenneth J. Falk and Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan.
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.