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Church-state separation group challenges grant for Brooksville Common

A large display of the Ten Commandments is placed in the front of the Brooksville Common on South Broad Street in Brooksville on April 21. The Brooksville Common, a joint venture of the city and First United Methodist Church of Brooksville, is aimed at providing open space downtown.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

A large display of the Ten Commandments is placed in the front of the Brooksville Common on South Broad Street in Brooksville on April 21. The Brooksville Common, a joint venture of the city and First United Methodist Church of Brooksville, is aimed at providing open space downtown.

BROOKSVILLE — The Brooksville Common is on land owned by First United Methodist Church of Brooksville and was built almost entirely with more than $200,000 raised from church members and other private donors.

But the Freedom from Religion Foundation has filed a letter objecting to the one public source of funding for the common — $10,000 approved by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency.

Because of the park's clearly religious themes, including a prominent display of the Ten Commandments, it cannot receive government money, said the foundation's letter, which was sent Thursday.

Such contributions violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the letter maintains, leaving the redevelopment agency with two choices:

Take back the grant — which the church has not yet received, according to the city — or "persuade the church to remove all religious displays and rededicate the park to a secular purpose."

City Council member Joe Bernardini said he hadn't seen the letter, but said that such grants are available to any landowner in the redevelopment area and aren't meant to benefit any particular religion.

Bill Geiger, the city's community development coordinator, said he has referred the matter to Cliff Taylor, a city attorney. Otherwise, Geiger said, he cannot comment because of the possibility of legal action.

Freedom from Religion, an organization with more than 20,000 members and based in Madison, Wis., conducted an investigation after being alerted to the contribution by a local resident. It has previously filed lawsuits fighting such contributions, said the organization's lawyer, Andrew Seidel.

It has consistently won, Seidel added, because the law is clear.

"The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits any 'sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign,' " he wrote in his letter to Brooksville, citing previous case law.

The letter also quotes the Florida Constitution, which states that no public money should be spent "directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

There is no mistaking the religious message of the park, which opened about three months ago, Seidel said.

In addition to the Ten Commandments, the park features a tree sculpture representing humans reaching toward heaven. Its central walkway is in the shape of a cross, and "the religious significance of the Latin cross is unambiguous and indisputable," he wrote.

Considering the law and the clear Christian themes, Seidel said, "It's kind of amazing that (the city) thought they could get away with it."

Contact Dan DeWitt at dewitt@tampabay.com.

Church-state separation group challenges grant for Brooksville Common 06/30/14 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2014 9:29pm]
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