In the town of Palatka, population 10,500, Calvary Missionary Baptist Church is applying for a $35,000 grant to restore a junior Olympic-sized swimming pool located in its Family Life Center.
The church has said the swimming pool, when repaired and opened, will be available for the community’s use. But the Freedom from Religion Foundation warned Mayor Terrill Hill in a May 11 letter the city would violate the Establishment Clause and previous court rulings if the grant is allowed.
First Liberty Institute, which is now representing the church, responded with its own letter that reassured Mayor Hill and city commission members they are not violating the Constitution. That letter, dated May 24, also insisted the Free Exercise Clause in the same historic document protects religious liberty by ensuring the church is not excluded from a public grant because of its religious nature.
Keisha Russell, an attorney for First Liberty Institute, tells AFN the Palatka City Commission has a grant program which Calvary church applied for.
“That grant is open to the public,” she says. “Anyone can apply for it."
The FFRF letter, from attorney Chris Line, makes it quite clear the atheist group is troubled by a city government cooperating with a church because citizens could be influenced spiritually by the cooperation. The church will use the pool to “entice” Paltaka’s citizens, especially its children, and “recruit” them to join the church, the letter says.
According to Russell, the First Liberty letter also accuses the FFRF attorney of twisting the implications of First Amendment-related court rulings, such as the 1970 Wirtz case and the Tilton decision in 1971. Tilton actually upheld a one-time grant for construction at a religious college, she told Fox News, and the Wirtz ruling involved the questionable sale of government property to a Catholic school, which is not relevant to Palatka.
Worse, Russell and First Liberty say FFRF completely misrepresented the 2017 landmark Trinity Lutheran case, which involved a grant program. The church sued, and won, after it was barred from participating in a program to resurface a playground.
The FFRF letter briefly mentions Trinity Lutheran in a sentence claiming the Palatka church is asking the city to use discretionary funds, not a grant program, which Trinity Lutheran demanded access to. Yet the atheist group complained about the Trinity Lutheran decision five years ago, the same ruling it is now citing as evidence.
"Their analysis is actually the opposite of what the Constitution calls for,” Russell says of FFRC, “and the opposite of what the law actually demands in this situation.”
It is not clear if the City of Palatka will run from the church grant over fear of an FFRF lawsuit or if First Liberty has convinced the city government the U.S. Constitution and court rulings are on their side.
Asked what Palatka and other city governments should do when an FFRF letter comes in the mail, Russell says “balling it up” and throwing it in the trash is a good response to the bullying tactic.