Montana City Delays Community Center Contract Over Church-State Concerns

A Montana city has delayed a decision regarding a contract between it and a local nonprofit because of church-state concerns brought up by a local activist.

The Missoula City Council heard complaints from local activist Rob Best who felt that the contract giving funds to City Life Community Center for use of its gymnasium would violate the separation of church and state, as the center is a Christian organization.

The contract, if approved, would allot $36,000 to the center in return for the organization helping to sponsor sports activities for youth in response to a growing demand for indoor winter sports.

Jackie Corday, Open Space Program Manager for Missoula's Parks & Recreation department, told The Christian Post about the need for more indoor space for youth athletics.

"For years it has been challenging for Missoula Parks and Recreation to provide adequate recreational programming for citizens in the winter and shoulder seasons due to a lack of gym space. Local gyms in this community have very limited access for sports and wellness programs," said Corday.

"This agreement with City Life will provide an excellent solution to the lack of gym space until a day when we can move forward in providing a much needed City operated Community Center here in Missoula."

Missoula City Council member Adam Hertz, who represents Ward 2, told CP that Best had two reasons for speaking against the contract.

"First, there has been no contract presented to the City Council and the public," said Hertz, who noted that it's against Montana's constitution for a City Council to vote on a contract not made available to the public.

"Mr. Best's second concern was that the contract may violate the separation of church and state, a concern that I do not share with Mr. Best."

Jonathan Garvin of the Missoula Area Secular Society told CP that while unaffiliated with Best, they share his concerns.

"The Missoula Area Secular Society opposes the City of Missoula taking any action that gives the appearance of endorsement of any religious beliefs over other religious beliefs," said Garvin.

"It is naive to imagine that individuals from varying religious backgrounds attending city organized functions at a religious facility could not be led to believe that the city prefers that its citizens conform to that religious institution's beliefs."

Hertz of City Council, who described himself as typically standing in ideological contrast with a "predominately secular, far left City Council super-majority and Mayor," does not see it as a valid separation of church and state issue.

"The Constitution explicitly states that there shall be no laws 'respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,'" said Hertz.

"Clearly, a municipality leasing gym space from a Christian organization is not a violation of the First Amendment."

According to Hertz, the Conservation Committee will hold a meeting regarding the contract on the morning of Wednesday, July 11.

The City Life Community Center of Missoula, Montana did not return comment by press time.