Monday, June 25, 2018
News Roundup

Dewitt column: A little subtlety could have helped Brooksville Common

It's a shame that it came to this.

The people at the First United Methodist Church of Brooksville no doubt wanted to do good for the city when they planned and built the Brooksville Common, a public courtyard next to their downtown sanctuary.

They put up most of the $240,000 cost of the project, and just about all of the rest came from other donors.

Only $10,000 was public money — a grant from the Brooksville Community Redevelopment Agency — and it doesn't appear it was essential to complete the common. It has been open since May, and the church still hasn't received a dime of the grant.

So, what does the church get for its efforts, for contributing to a pressing public need — beautifying downtown Brooksville?

A letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation demanding that the park lose its religious imagery.

If you've talked to the people who built the park, you know that's not going to happen. They really love their religious imagery.

Fortunately, the foundation offered an option: The church doesn't get the public money.

Church members and people sympathetic to them are likely to be outraged at this outside interference, to see it as yet another example of secularism gone wild.

But it's not, really. And if sending the letter — backed by an implied threat of a lawsuit — is intrusive and maybe a little bit petty, it's also a necessary reminder of the need to maintain the constitutional wall between church and state.

What's more, it all could have been avoided if the church had just toned things down, if it had built the common to actually be what it claims to be: a church-owned space with a standing invitation to the public.

I'm quite sure that no local resident would have alerted the foundation — which is, by the way, what it requires to take action — if the common's designers had limited themselves to, say, the inlaid cross pattern in the pavement.

The same goes for the plaques dedicated to such religiously themed but generally uplifting messages as compassion. And who would be bothered, upon entering the courtyard, by the sight of the logo of the United Methodist Church?

Nobody. It is church property. Those of us who are not Christian or not religious at all would understand. A little bit of subtlety and we would buy the main argument in the city's response to the foundation: The CRA's beautification fund is available to any property owner in the downtown district regardless of religious affiliation. Most of us would even be willing to overlook the fact that this fund was created with property tax money and that the church, of course, doesn't pay taxes.

But the law is clear that public money can't help further a religious cause. And the common now furthers the cause all over the place.

It features loads of religious symbolism and, of course, a big, bold overt statement of religious intent: the Ten Commandments carved right at the entrance.

It's enough to give an ironic twist to the Methodist motto of "open hearts, open minds" because there's no doubt the idea is to evangelize. It invites believers but preaches to nonbelievers.

And that brings us to a constitutional principle that is about as basic as such principles get: The public doesn't pay for preaching.

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