Sep 15, 2011

In 2003, Detroit’s Downtown Development Authority adopted a "Facade Improvement Program" that uses tax dollars to reimburse property owners and tenants within certain areas of the city for the costs of various improvements to the exteriors of buildings. Under the FIP, aid recipients are eligible to receive 50% of the cost of repairs or improvements to their structures, facades, and parking lots, with a maximum of $150,000 for each structure and $30,000 for each parking lot. Among the aid recipients were three churches, which were to be reimbursed for more than $500,000 in refurbishment costs. American Atheists sued in April 2006, arguing that providing direct cash grants to churches violates the Establishment Clause. A federal district court largely upheld the grants, however, reasoning that the FIP was enacted for a secular purpose — to promote business development and growth in downtown Detroit in anticipation of the city’s hosting Super Bowl and All-Star games — and that the payments to the churches would primarily advance this secular goal. In an amicus brief supporting American Atheists’ appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, we argued that the district court’s ruling runs afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court’s strict prohibitions against both direct aid to churches and aid to maintain buildings put to religious uses. The brief was filed on May 19, 2008, on behalf of Americans United and a number of religious groups. Oral argument was held on March 5, 2009. On May 28, 2009, the Sixth Circuit held that FIP aid to churches did not violate the Establishment Clause.  American Atheists filed a petition for rehearing en banc, but the court denied the petition on August 18, 2009.  American Atheists did not seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court, so the case has concluded.