Wirtz v. City of South Bend

AU's Role: 
AU's Involvement Began: 
August 2011

In June 2011, the City of South Bend approved a plan to purchase a piece of land for $1.2 million and donate it to a Catholic school (St. Joseph's High School) to use for a football stadium and other athletic facilities. The religious school was handpicked by the City to receive the land, and the City permitted the school to use the land for religious purposes, including prayers at athletic events.  

Americans United, together with the ACLU and the ACLU of Indiana, filed a lawsuit in federal court in August 2011, challenging the proposed transaction on behalf of four local taxpayers. In September 2011, the trial court issued an order prohibiting the City from transferring the land to the religious school, because the transfer would cause the City to unconstitutionally endorse religion.

The City then devised a new plan, under which it would have taken bids for the property. But the City’s bidding criteria favored bidders who intended to use the property to “promote . . . construction of Saint Joseph’s High School and related athletic facilities.” Unsurprisingly, the school was the only bidder, and its bid was $850,000 less than the City had paid for the property. We opposed the City’s request; the trial court agreed that the City's new plan continued to endorse religion and denied the City's request to modify the injunction.

Finally, the City came up with a third proposal to dispose of the property, which we did not oppose. Under this plan, any organization was eligible to submit a bid, and there were no bidding criteria that favored the religious school. The religious school was the only bidder, for the minimum price of $545,000. As a result of our lawsuit, the City and its taxpayers will receive $545,000 more for the property than they otherwise would have and $200,000 more than the property’s appraised value. 

Even though the property had already been sold, in December 2011 the City filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. We moved to dismiss the appeal because the case was moot and the appeal was untimely. The Court of Appeals agreed and dismissed the appeal in February 2012.

Watch AU Executive Director Barry Lynn discuss the land transfer on WSBT-TV.