Officials in Detroit ceased involvement with a program designed to give tax money to houses of worship in light of the COVID-19 pandemic after Americans United raised concerns about its legality.
The program, known as the Faith Forward Fund, was co-sponsored and partially funded by the city. It was carried out in conjunction with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. AU noted that on its website, the United Way affiliate stated that both faith-based organizations and secular nonprofits were eligible for grants so long as they have an operating budget of less than $250,000. But various other statements on the site offering more details of the program suggested that only faith-based organizations would be eligible. The ambiguity, AU noted, might unconstitutionally discourage nonreligious nonprofits from applying.
In a letter to city officials, AU’s Legal Department noted that a press release issued by city officials announcing the program was headlined, “City announces Faith Forward grant program to help sustain churches, synagogues, mosques during COVID-19 pandemic.” Several officials who were quoted spoke only about faith-based groups.
AU’s letter added, “Most problematically, the program eligibility criteria appear to create a clear preference for religious organizations in one respect: ‘City of Detroit faith-based COVID vaccine site partners’ appear to be eligible regardless of whether they meet the $250,000 budget limit that applies to other faith-based and nonprofit organizations. But nonreligious, nonprofit vaccine-site partners are not eligible, at least if they have an annual budget that is greater than $250,000.”
Furthermore, AU pointed out that there was no language in the program materials stating that the money could not be used for religious purposes.
Americans United made a number of suggestions, including:
• Altering program materials to make clear that religious and nonreligious nonprofit organizations are equally eligible for program funds; removing any statements that may suggest that only faith-based organizations are eligible or that there is any kind of preference for faith-based organizations.
• Modifying the program eligibility requirements so that nonreligious vaccine-site partners are eligible to the same extent as religious ones.
• Making clear in the program materials that program funds must not be used for religious activities or purposes.
• Requiring applicants for program funds to certify in their applications that they will not use program funds for religious activities or purposes.
• Putting in place procedures to monitor use of program funds after they are disseminated to ensure that the money does not go to religious uses.
City officials responded quickly to AU’s letter. They pulled government money out of the program, and, in addition, the United Way has added restrictions on the program that will ensure that the money will not be used for religious purposes. The group also made it clear that all grants must be implemented to serve the citizens of Detroit without discrimination.