Sep 07, 2011

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Indiana ACLU and the American Civil Liberties Union today hailed a federal court ruling blocking an Indiana city's plan to gift public land to a religious school.U.S. District Judge Robert L. Miller Jr. agreed with Americans United and the ACLU that the planned land gift would violate the separation of church and state. Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “South Bend officials made a serious constitutional misstep when they voted to use taxpayer money to support a religious school.  I’m glad the court put a stop to this ill-considered scheme.”The three civil liberties groups filed suit after the South Bend Common Council voted 5-4 to spend $1.2 million to buy property that was to be transferred to the Catholic Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend for free. The land would have been 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 charged. The lawsuit, Wirtz v. City of South Bend, noted that St. Joseph’s 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 argued, South Bend city funding of St. Joseph’s High unconstitutionally shows governmental preference for one religious institution over others and gives substantial direct support to religious activities.Said Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, “We’re pleased that the court has halted this planned government handout to a religious institution favored by local officials.  South Bend should use its tax revenues in a manner that benefits all its residents, without regard to their religious faiths.”Said Indiana ACLU Staff Attorney Gavin Rose, "We are delighted that the federal court has recognized that the Constitution prevents government from giving direct subsidies to religious institutions, as South Bend was attempting to do."Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said, "This proposed land transfer is nothing more than a gift to a religious institution by a public entity, which the court rightly concluded is a clear violation of the Constitution."Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include local taxpayers Roy Wirtz, Eric Brown, Tim DeLaney and Peter Reimers. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division.The attorneys representing the plaintiffs are Luchenitser, Rose and Mach, along with Indiana ACLU Legal Director Kenneth J. Falk and Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan.