Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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.

Dewitt column: A little subtlety could have helped Brooksville Common 07/10/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 10, 2014 10:49am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Siesta Beach tops rankings of best beaches in America


    Three beaches in Florida made it on a highly coveted list of the top 10 in America this year, ranked by Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. "Dr. Beach."

     Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. "Dr. Beach," ranked Siesta Beach in Sarasota as the No. 1 beach in America.
[TImes file photo]
  2. Tattooed 'Joker' accused of pointing gun at Miami traffic

    Bizarre News

    MIAMI — Police in Miami-Dade County have managed to arrest the Joker without Batman's help following reports of a green-haired man with tattoos on his face pointing a gun at traffic.

    This photo provided by the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department shows Lawrence Sullivan, who was arrested in Miami-Dade County, Fla., on Tuesday, May 23, 2017, and charged with carrying a concealed firearm. Police say the self-described "tattoo model" was pointing a gun at moving vehicles. [Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department via AP]
  3. Deputies: Two men, teen intentionally set fire, left it to burn within Weedon Island Preserve


    ST. PETERSBURG –– Two men and a teen face charges after deputies say they deliberately started a fire within Weedon Island Preserve last month.

    Adam Grote, 19, left, and Brandon Kholos, 20, along with a 17-year-old, face charges after deputies say they intentionally started a fire on April 15, 2017, that burned about six acres on Googe Island within Weedon Island Preserve in St. Petersburg. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
  4. Police chief: Manchester searches turn up valuable info in concert bombing


    MANCHESTER, England — Home searches across Manchester have uncovered important items for the investigation into the concert bombing that left 22 people dead, Manchester's police chief announced Thursday, while other British authorities complained bitterly about information leaks blamed on U.S. officials.

    A police officer at the scene at an address in Nuneaton, England Thursday May 25, 2017 where they arrested a seventh suspect in the investigation into the Manchester Arena bombing. British police have arrested a seventh person in connection with the Manchester Arena bombing. The man was held Wednesday after police carried out searches in the English town of Nuneaton, which is about 161 kilometers (100 miles) south of Manchester. [Joe Giddens | PA via AP]
  5. Joe Henderson: Only unanimous jury vote justifies extreme act of execution


    A ruling last week by the U.S. Supreme Court on Florida's death penalty law didn't generate a lot of chatter, but don't let that fool you.

    A jury recommended execution for Dontae Morris of Tampa by a 10-2 vote in one of his murder trials. The recommendation was unanimous when he was tried in the shooting deaths of two Tampa police officers.