Posted by: Patricia Salkin | September 10, 2009

Inclusion of Churches in Downtown Revitalization Program Not an Establishment Clause Violation Since Grants Awarded on a Neutral Basis

Plaintiff sought to enjoin the city from including churches in its downtown revitalization program which was created to revitalize and curb any further deterioration of its downtown area.  As part of the program, the city reimbursed owners of all buildings up to 50% of the cost of refurbishing the exterior of the building or parking lot. Out of the 91 completed projects under the program, nine involved renovations to buildings and parking lots owned by three churches.

Plaintiff claimed that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (or its counterpart in the Michigan Constitution) prohibited the city from including religious organizations in the program. There was no dispute that the city awarded the grants without regard to the religious, non-religious, or “areligious” character of the recipient, nor was it argued that the facial neutrality of the program masked an intent to advance religion. As a result, the federal district court upheld all of the city’s reimbursement grants to the churches except (1) the costs of improving outdoor signs at the three churches, (2) the costs of replacing the storm windows covering two stained-glass windows, and (3) the court granted the plaintiff attorney’s fees.

On appeal, the federal appeals court upheld the program and grants, and reversed the partial judgment for the plaintiff. The appeals court first addressed the preliminary issue of standing. The court determined that the plaintiff satisfied the standing requirements because the city funded its program through local property taxes, and at least one of the members of the American Atheists was a citizen of the city. On the merits of the case, however, the court determined that the city’s program allocated grants on a neutral basis and without a hidden agenda. In addition, the program did not have the impermissible effect of advancing religion in general or any one faith in particular. By endorsing all qualifying applicants, the program had endorsed none of them, and accordingly, it did not run afoul of the federal or state religion clauses.

American Atheists, Inc. v. Detroit, No. 07-2398 (6th Cir. 5/28/2009).

The opinion can be accessed at: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/09a0188p-06.pdf

This summary is based on the one appearing in the July 31, 2009 Illinois Municipal League Legal  Bulletin available at: http://www.iml.org/dbs/imllegal/dyncat.cfm?catid=76


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