First Liberty represents Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, a small church in Palatka, Florida that applied for a small grant to restore an indoor junior Olympic pool located in its Family Life Center.  The church wants to make the pool available to the community free of charge.  But after a complaint from Freedom From Religion Foundation, the city hesitated on providing the grant.

As a part of its religious mission, Calvary Missionary sponsors numerous community outreach initiatives—food and clothing giveaways, after-school programs, recreational opportunities—many of which take place in its 80,000 square foot Family Life Center situated in the heart of the northside of Palatka.

The Family Life Center’s pool is the only such pool in the county.  The problem is that the pool needs substantial repairs.  Thankfully, the City of Palatka could help.  By means of a $35,000 grant from the City, Calvary Missionary could make all necessary repairs for the pool.

But when the church submitted its application for the funds, Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter demanding that Palatka deny the church’s application.  Why?  Because Calvary Missionary—a church—owns the Family Life center. Had the Family Life Center been purely secular, it would be just fine, but some wrongly think it would violate the First Amendment for a religious institution to participate in public benefits.

But in truth, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment requires the government to be neutral in its interactions with religious believers and non-believers alike.  Neutrality means that the government must treat all people equally.  So, if a pool operated by the United Way qualifies for a public grant, so too must a church, synagogue, or mosque.

The law is clear: excluding a church like Calvary Missionary from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified solely because it is a church is illegal religious discrimination.

That’s what First Liberty Institute told city representatives in a letter.

The U.S. Supreme Court addressed a situation remarkably like Calvary Missionary’s request just five years ago in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer.  There, a Christian church applied to a generally available grant program to help resurface its playground.  Like Calvary Missionary, the church in Trinity Lutheran believed the benefits of a new playground surface would extend beyond its students to the local community.  However, the agency running the grant program declined the church’s application based solely on its status as a church—something Chief Justice John Roberts concluded, “is odious to our Constitution . . . and cannot stand.”

Most recently, in Carson v. Makin (in which First Liberty was co-counsel), the Court held that a Maine tuition program could not discriminate against parents who send their children to religious schools.  Writing again for the majority, Justice Roberts said, “We have repeatedly held that a State violates the Free Exercise Clause when it excludes religious observers from otherwise available public benefits.”

It’s time for officials in Palatka to recognize that if they offer grants to public entities, they cannot deny them to Calvary Missionary.

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