Court Rules Against Atheist Group in Church Funding Battle

A federal court ruled Wednesday against a national atheist group that filed a lawsuit against the city of Detroit for pledging to reimburse a church for property improvements.

"Churches cannot be treated as second class simply because they are religious institutions. They have the same right to reimbursement for physical improvements as all other entities have," said Dale Schowengerdt, a counsel for the Christian legal group Alliance Defense Fund, in a statement.

"No reasonable person would consider a church's receipt of contractually-promised reimbursement to be a government endorsement of religion. The court agreed that the church was rightfully allowed to be part of the city's program," he argued.

The City of Detroit Development Agency made a contract with St. John's Episcopal Church to improve its outer appearance to help boost the city's image before the 2006 Super Bowl and to spur economic development in the area, according to ADF, which represented the church's interests in the suit.

Detroit vowed in the contract to reimburse half of the church's expenses, up to $180,000.

American Atheists had in response filed a suit on behalf of itself and residents claiming a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution.

As a result, the city withheld reimbursement to the church despite the fact the church had already secured a loan and completed the improvements.

The federal court, however, ruled that the church should receive most of the reimbursement promised by the city.

"Despite the cramped interpretation of the First Amendment by the American Atheists, reimbursing churches for non-religious purposes is not an establishment of religion, just like reimbursing a secular business is not an endorsement of the store or its products," said Schowengerdt.

"We're glad that the court saw through this blatant attempt to punish an inner-city church when all it desired to be is a good member of the Detroit community by agreeing to improve its property."

The Alliance Defense Fund is a legal alliance formed by the leaders of 35 ministries who came together in 1994. ADF seeks to defend and advocate for religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and traditional family values through strategy, training, funding, and litigation.

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