No, the Government Can’t Give Property to a Church

The American Humanist Association’s Apignini Humanist Legal Center is telling the school board in Monroe, Ohio that they can’t give a valuable piece of property to a local church for a dollar rather than putting it up for bid to see what it would fetch on the open market.

At its September 2014 meeting, the Board of Education discussed the disposal of “Old High School” property, valued at $1.2 million, which is claimed to require extensive renovations and removal of hazardous asbestos. The school board considered the following three options: selling the property to the City of Monroe, demolishing the building and removing the hazardous waste or selling the property to the Monroe First Church of God for the nominal price of one dollar. The letter states that there has been no indication that all other options for the sale of the property have been explored and that the Board’s actions have shown a lack of transparency and due diligence. The letter also states that if the Board were to give the “Old High School” to the church, this action would be a violation of the Establishment Clause.

“This essentially free transfer of government property to a particular Christian church is an unconstitutional advancement of the Christian faith,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “No other entity in the community has enjoyed this kind of privilege.”

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said, “The Board of Education should consider all of its options instead of favoring one particular Christian church.”

One of the members of the school board is also a mention of this particular church. This reminds me of a story I broke a few years ago about a similar situation here in Michigan, where then-Rep. Bart Stupak tried to put an amendment into a bill allowing the Coast Guard to give a piece of federal property in his district to a local church rather than putting it up for bid. When I busted him on it, he withdrew the amendment.

"Yep. Principally raking in a nice fat paycheck for hauling the party line."

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  • http://www.thelosersleague.com theschwa

    Let me guess: the church will then ask the city for a grant to help them pay for those expensive renovations and asbestos removal.

  • John Pieret

    Speaking of churches and property, Kent Hovind has been indicted again for a mail fraud scheme to keep the government from seizing his property to pay the $430,400 the jury found was subject to forfeiture at his trial.

  • abb3w

    Ick.

    So, 3313.41 of the Ohio Revised Code seems to say that after they’ve tried an auction, the school board can do a private sale; there’s a piece from 2012 at the MainStreetMonroe website on the auction attempt for Lemon-Monroe High. Which looks like it would make the disposal of a possibly asbestos-ridden condemned firetrap to be a permissible sale after all.

    However… there was a bid in that action. For $50000. Apparently from this very Church. Which bid the school board (according to the journal-news website) voted to reject. Wait, what? “We bid $50k.” “Nope; we’re not accepting the bid. Now that we have the formality of an attempted auction out of the way, how’d you like to buy it for a dollar?” And, of course, since it’s a sale for a dollar rather than an outright donation, the rule on consulting with the Ohio ethics commission doesn’t apply.

    That looks like it might still be within the letter of the law, but in no way, shape, or form falls within the spirit.

  • kantalope

    I’ll give ’em two bucks…double their money.

  • matty1

    @3 I’d expect there to be rules about when a government body can reject the highest bid, generally on the grounds that there is something wrong with the bidder – e.g a bid for a catering contract from a company that doesn’t meet food safety standards. Rejecting one offer and then accepting a much lower one from the same bidder has got to be against the rules somewhere.

  • eric

    @3 – yeah I mostly agree with @5. Rejecting a high bid only to give the property to the same bidder at a lower price seems to me the sort of thing the court would identify as a ‘sham’ process and therefore not legal. The courts have to occasionally separate sham from real marriages, sham from real religious belief, sham from real charities, and so on – seems to me this is a case where they could pretty easily identify a sham auction/government bid process.

    This probably doesn’t come up very often with school boards and property, but contractors sue the federal government all the time for analogous shennanigans (i.e., awarding a contract not based on merit but on under-the-table considerations). Sometimes the contractor is right and sometimes they are wrong, but the point for this case is that courts rule on whether a process has been followed legitimately vs. ‘in name only’ all the time.

  • abb3w

    @5, matty1

    Rejecting one offer and then accepting a much lower one from the same bidder has got to be against the rules somewhere.

    It certainly seems that it should be. However, I can’t find where it is.

    @6, eric

    Rejecting a high bid only to give the property to the same bidder at a lower price seems to me the sort of thing the court would identify as a ‘sham’ process and therefore not legal.

    I’d hope so; but it would seem to have to come as a ruling on equity rather than law.