A national atheist activist group says an Indiana church's plans to use tax exempt bond financing to help construct a campus for its ministries is a violation of the state's constitution and the separation of church and state clause in the Constitution.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation says the city of West Lafayette cannot legally subsidize Faith Church's "Faith West Project" with $7 million in economic development revenue bonds. FFRF's co-president Dan Barker sent a letter of complaint to Mayor John Dennis and the City Council.
In a video posted on Faith Church's website, the church's pastor Steve Viars said that asking whether it is appropriate for government to allow a tax exempt bond to be issued for a non-profit religious organization like Faith is a "very reasonable question." However, the tax exempt bond financing is done for all types of organizations, including religious ones.
"The truth of the matter is that globally there are literally thousands and thousands of tax exempt bonds that have been issued for nonprofit organizations, some secular, some religious of every stripe imaginable," Viars said.
He said groups such as Planned Parenthood, and more recently, a LGBT group, have availed themselves of tax exempt bond financing in order to help construct community facilities so he sees no reason for a religious group to be excluded.
Among its objections to the project, FFRF is opposed to the church's proposed student and biblical counseling center. Barker noted that "since the bonds the city would issue benefit the project as a whole, the city would in fact be supporting biblical counseling."
The atheists group is also attacking the church's view on homosexuality by pointing to a complaint from one of its members, a local resident who said he took part in "reparative homosexual therapy" at Faith Ministries' Faith Baptist Church as a teen.
FFRF included the complaint in its release, in which an unidentified person stated:
"My sessions at Faith Baptist Church were the most hurtful, damaging and humiliating experiences of my life. I was forced to divulge any and all sexual thoughts and keep them in a journal. I was also interrogated about my masturbation habits and the sexual fantasies that accompanied them. All of this was performed by an unlicensed therapist and observed by three therapists-in-training. It has taken years to overcome the shame and self-loathing these sessions caused, and I'm still not there yet."
A response to the allegations from the church was not available at press time.
Faith's existing church campus is located in Lafayette and Faith West is intended to house its west‐side community ministries, according to the church.
"Each space within Faith West, from the multipurpose recreation/worship space, fitness center, childcare area, gathering area, lounge area, study area, retail/food service area and housing, is designed to serve the West Lafayette Community and further the mission of Faith Church and be a blessing to Faith Church's neighbors," the church states on its website.
The city's mayor has stated that he believes the religious mission of Faith Ministries can be "carved out" from the parts of the Faith West Project that the city would subsidize, according to FFRF. Barker called that a fiction. "Money is fungible, and the funding used for one portion of the project is simply used to offset the costs of other components," he stated.
"Faith Ministries' evangelical mission extends to every corner of its work; it is the reason they exist," Barker said.
"Has the city determined if the Covenant Student Ministry Housing will require residents to agree to a statement of faith or religious code of conduct? It does not seem possible to ferret out nonreligious components to the Faith Ministries programming," he added.
Barker warned against bias in favor of preferred religious groups. "Of course the council would likely not give $7 million in economic development revenue bonds to a mosque or to an atheist organization."
A public hearing on the project is scheduled before the City Council this Thursday.
While atheist groups such as FFRF often point to "separation of church and state" as reason to prohibit any government involvement when it comes to matters such as tax exempt bond financing for faith-based groups, legal experts disagree on the modern usage of the phrase.
According to the historical preservation group WallBuilders.com, the modern application of this phrase "bears nearly no resemblance to either its historical or Biblical origins." President Thomas Jefferson intended to assure the Baptists of his era that because of "the wall of separation between church and state" the government would not interfere with or inhibit their religious practices or expressions, whether occurring in private or public, according to WallBuilders.
However, in 1947 the Supreme Court reversed the traditional use of this phrase, for the first time "allowing the government to interfere with and even prohibit religious practices and expressions, especially when occurring in public – a complete reversal of the historic meaning of the phrase and its usage both by Jefferson and those in previous centuries," WallBuilders states on its website.