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Tax money helped pay for faith-based event in Hernando

BROOKSVILLE — In July, the first Hernando Freedom Fest drew an estimated 15,000 people from throughout Florida to enjoy food, fireworks and fellowship.

Hernando's tourism bureau spent $5,000 in tourist tax revenue to sponsor the event through the Brooksville Ministerial Association. Last month, the Tourist Development Council agreed to allocate another $5,000 for the 2009 event.

It was the largest allocation for any of the dozen local groups seeking tourism dollars to promote Hernando County.

The funding also stands out in another way: It may violate the Florida and U.S. Constitutions' language calling for the separation of church and state.

Members of the TDC, the county's tourism director, Sue Rupe, and Rupe's boss, business development director Mike McHugh, never questioned the legality of giving public dollars to a group advocating a specific religious belief.

"No, we have not had a legal request for review,'' said County Attorney Garth Coller. "But there is one coming now.''

Coller said Thursday that his office will examine the facts of the allocation, applicable state and federal Constitutions and case law to determine whether the funding poses a problem.

Glenn Katon, director of the religious freedom project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said that it likely does.

He cites Article 1 of the Florida Constitution, which 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 U.S. Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.''

One interpretation of that broad language came in the 1947 Supreme Court case Everson vs. the Board of Education, which found, "No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion."

Spending tax money to fund a Christian concert for an association of Christian ministers, "all indications are that it's a violation and we have some very serious concerns,'' Katon said Thursday. "The question is, now that the county is aware of this, what are they going to do?''

There are no specific provisions in Hernando policy or Florida law about spending tax money on religious events, according to county finance director Amy Gillis.

"When there is not specific statute, the rule of 'public purpose' comes into play. The statutes are pretty gray in this respect and basically say that if the board determines in a public forum that an expenditure is a public purpose, then it is a legal expenditure,'' Gillis told the Times in an e-mail.

Even so, if the Clerk of the Circuit Court finds the public board's decision to be a stretch, it could be challenged, she said.

Rupe, the tourism director, said tourist tax money can be used to fund events that draw people into the county and said the music festival did draw people in. "It has to be open to the public. You can't turn anyone away,'' she said.

As for a prohibition of spending tourist tax money on a Christian concert, Rupe said, "I've never seen anything that says one way or the other.''

She added, "I'm not the one to answer that question,'' and referred further questions to the Florida House Committee on Tourism in Tallahassee.

Joseph Santerelli, who heads the Ministerial Association, said that he didn't hesitate to ask for help from the tourism board. "I pay taxes,'' he said.

When he applied for the money this year, he said no one questioned the appropriateness of the funding. In fact, he said, "they were excited because of what they had already seen last year.''

Santerelli doesn't dispute the faith-based nature of the event.

When questioned about the legal separation of church and state set out in the U.S. Constitution and legal opinions on the meaning of the so-called "establishment clause,'' Santerelli said the separation is not in the Constitution.

He went on to say that the country's governing documents were written by Christians, the country was founded by Christians, and the majority of Hernando County residents were likely Christians.

"Would you really want a complete separation of church and state?'' he asked.

No faiths were excluded from the event, Santerelli said, and it was designed "to just celebrate our nation's independence and freedom.''

"I don't think anyone viewed it as a Christian event. We viewed it as a tourist event,'' said County Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley, who also chairs the TDC.

"Nobody was forced to do anything regarding religion,'' he said. "The idea was to get people there and I guess they like Christian music.''

Kingsley added that it was the single largest event in the county this year, and getting people into the county was the job of the tourism office.

But Katon of the ACLU noted it would be hard to find any example of such improper mixing of government and religion that also didn't serve some positive secular purpose.

According to Kingsley, the TDC saw the expenditure as a way to get "the best bang for our buck'' because the event had been so popular. But if the expenditure was wrong, it needs to be corrected.

"We're not going to do anything illegal,'' he said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

Tax money helped pay for faith-based event in Hernando 10/09/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 1:59pm]
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