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Hernando County official wants a grant to religious festival reviewed

BROOKSVILLE — If Hernando County's tourism officials want to give public dollars to a group putting on a Christian music festival, they will have to show that doing so won't violate the U.S. and Florida constitutions.

They will also have to answer a challenge from the Anti-Defamation League, which last week formally objected to the allocation.

The Tourist Development Council "did not establish a sufficient factual record'' to determine that a $5,000 grant awarded to the Brooksville Ministerial Association in September met the separation of church and state provisions in the constitutions, according to a memo Wednesday from Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben to county staff who oversee the TDC.

The TDC must hear the case again and determine whether the event meets the specific tests of constitutionality. The board will also have to allow members of the Anti-Defamation League to present their perspective. No date has been set for the hearing.

In seeking the grant earlier this year, the Brooksville Ministerial Association identified itself as an "association of church pastors, youth ministers and para-church ministers'' that uses the money as "start-up funds for the next event and donates to community (people) serving ministries/agencies.''

"Although the association's application contained indications that the … festival might be religious in nature, the Tourist Development Council did not seek any further information about either the association or its planned event,'' Jouben wrote.

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 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.''

The application goes on to delineate the cost of having a booth at the event. Vendors paid $125. Ministry booths paid $50.

After the county published a press release about this year's TDC grants, the Florida director of the Religious Freedom Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, Glenn Katon, 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.

After seeing Jouben's memo on Wednesday, Katon said, "I think the county attorney did exactly what he was supposed to do. He looked into the facts, gave them the law and advised his client to take additional steps.''

He said he will continue to watch to see that the county follows through.

The expenditure also got the attention of David Barkey, Southern Area Counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, which notified the county last week of its objections.

"Clearly, disbursing taxpayer dollars to a religious group such as the Brooksville Ministerial Association, which is identified as a Protestant 501(c)(3) (non-profit) organization, to provide a faith-based concert is proscribed by the No Aid Provision'' of the Florida Constitution, he wrote.

Barkey could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Bill Oakley, the secretary and treasurer for the ministerial association, said Wednesday he said he was "not going to hyperventilate'' about the possible loss of the grant for the event, which the group is now talking about putting on again on or near the Fourth of July.

"It was just a source for advertising funding,'' he said. "If that doesn't work out, we'll just find another source of funding.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando County official wants a grant to religious festival reviewed 10/22/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 24, 2008 6:06pm]
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