ACLU wants to ensure Freedom Fest not overtly Christian

BROOKSVILLE — From "God and Country" to the more secular slogan of "Family, Freedom and Country," the organizers the Hernando Freedom Fest promise some changes to the event next summer.

Those differences will be the subject of scrutiny from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

"We're looking to see what actually happens there," Mike Pheneger, the state representative to the national board of the ACLU, said on Friday. "I guess we won't know how to react until we see what they do."

Earlier this year, the festival caught the attention of the ACLU because the combination of receiving county tax dollars and its religious overtones drew complaints that it violated the separation of church and state.

County tourism officials believe they have found a way to meet the separation of church and state provisions in the U.S. and Florida constitutions.

The Tourist Development Council agreed Thursday night to spend $5,000 in tourist tax revenue on the Freedom Fest. However, the money will go directly to vendors and advertisers rather than through the Brooksville Ministerial Association, the festival's organizers.

"I feel comfortable with the resolution," Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben said Friday. "It's the best resolution that could have been reached."

Pheneger said the ACLU would likely have no problem with the new arrangement as long as the festival manages to avoid overt religious overtones. Otherwise, Pheneger said, the county could still face trouble for providing funds for the event.

"If they're advertising one type of event and the Ministerial Association is promoting another, they may be in a difficult situation," Pheneger said. "They still may not have painted enough lipstick on it."

So far, the leaders of the Brooksville Ministerial Association have not moved from the original plan to hold a faith-based festival.

"We're going to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ at the event," said Joe Santerelli, senior pastor at Hillside Community Baptist Church and president of the association. "And we never said we weren't."

On Sept. 26, the TDC submitted a purchase order for the grant to the county labeled as $5,000 for a one-day "Christian Music Festival'' in the coming year. Last year, the TDC also gave $5,000 for the association's first Freedom Fest, which drew roughly 15,000 people to Florida Classic Park on July 3.

Vendor applications, which were reviewed by the County Commission when the organizers sought a permit to hold the festival at the Florida Classic Park site, made clear the event's focus.

"We look forward to working with you at Freedom Fest 2008,'' it states. "As we partner together as one body of Christ, much more can be accomplished to further the Kingdom of God to His Glory.''

Regardless, some county officials claim they regarded the festival as an opportunity to showcase Hernando as a tourist destination, not a publicly sponsored religious gathering.

"To me, it was a music festival. That's how the entire board looked at it," said Sue Rupe, coordinator for the County Tourism Development Council. "I think everyone agrees that it's a great event for families and for the county."

After the county issued a press release about this year's TDC grants, ACLU officials questioned whether the expenditure was constitutional.

Florida's Constitution states: "No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect or religious denomination.''

The TDC funds come from a 3 percent tax on short-term lodgings, commonly known as a "bed tax.'' The money is supposed to be used to enhance tourism opportunities in Hernando County.

Jouben said he believed Thursday's compromise should help the county avoid any further trouble. He also referred to a ruling in a June 2006 case in the U.S. District Court in Maryland that found Baltimore's incentive package of nearly $300,000 to lure the National Baptist Convention didn't violate the constitution.

"All TDC cares about is if the event bring heads and beds," Jouben said. "They have no interest in promoting the religious message of the BMA."

For now, there's little the ACLU can do until the event actually unfolds in July. Pheneger said he'll certainly be watching.

"If they want to celebrate the Fourth of July, patriotism, family and freedom motto, that's great," Pheneger said. "But the question is whether that's what the festival will actually be. If they don't, the council won't be able to claim at the end that they didn't know what they got themselves into."

Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

ACLU wants to ensure Freedom Fest not overtly Christian 11/21/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 24, 2008 8:33pm]

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