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Christian music fest funds blur separation of church, state

I got a quick lesson in legal history when I talked to Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben this week.

He told me Methodists, Baptists and every sect other than, possibly, Episcopalians, owe their prominence in this country to the so-called "establishment clause'' in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

This states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.'' It means our founders chose not to create an official state church, which gave room for a variety of faiths to grow and thrive.

That includes Christian denominations, such as the Puritans and Quakers, that had faced persecution in Europe, as well as non-Christian groups — Muslims and Jews, for example — that have co-existed here with little conflict.

The point here is that the separation of church and state has worked out well for all of us, but especially for religious groups.

So why are churches usually the ones trying to knock holes in this barrier?

It happened here, most recently, when the Brooksville Ministerial Association applied for county money to promote a Christian music festival scheduled for July 3.

In September, the county Tourist Development Council approved (without much thought about the Constitution, it seems) its largest grant, $5,000, for the festival, just as it had for the association's Freedom Fest in 2008.

After a story by the Hernando Times' Barbara Behrendt and a letter of complaint from the Anti-Defamation League, Jouben suggested the council rethink this grant, which it did last month.

Instead of giving the money to the Ministerial Association, the council will pay for newspaper ads playing up the festival's fireworks, and its patriotic and pro-family themes without mentioning its religious overtones (which sounds kind of like advertising a Bucs game without mentioning football).

This is justified by county policy, Jouben said, because the grants are meant to promote visits to Hernando's motels and restaurants; the festival is expected to draw a crowd as large as 30,000.

This approach is also justified by federal case law, which is murkier on the subject of separation of church and state than most people realize, Jouben said. In a 2006 case that relates directly to Hernando's situation, he said, the U.S. District Court in Maryland found Baltimore's incentive package of nearly $300,000 to the National Baptist Convention did not violate the U.S. Constitution.

Yes, but there's still the matter of the Florida Constitution, which is even clearer on this point than the federal one.

It says no money from any government agency shall go "directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.''

"The prohibition is clear,'' said Mike Phenenger, of the American Civil Liberties Union. "If this is a religious festival, the Tourist Development Council will be guilty of providing indirect tax aid to generate their audience.''

And, yes, it will be religious.

"We're going to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ at the event,'' said Joe Santerelli, senior pastor of Hillside Community Baptist Church and association president.

More to the point, they will proclaim their interpretation of the gospel. And the county is putting tax dollars in the offering plate.

Christian music fest funds blur separation of church, state 12/04/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 8:35pm]
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