City Council Donates $1,200,000 to Private Catholic School

South Bend, Indiana is home to the University of Notre Dame — so you can imagine how the city loves its Catholic population. But now they’re crossing the line.

The backstory:

St. Joseph’s High School is a private, Catholic school. They want to build a new football field and athletic track. So they’re asking donors to contribute, right?

Of course not. They want the South Bend Common Council to pay for it with taxpayer money.

Instead of saying “No” — which would be the legal thing to do — the city council searched for a way around the law. They knew they couldn’t give the school $1,200,000 directly. So they tried another method: Buy a Family Dollar store, demolish it, and donate the land to the school.

The city’s Common Council, despite concerns about constitutional separation of church and state, Monday night [June 27th] narrowly approved spending $1.2 million to buy a property on LaSalle Avenue and transfer it to St. Joseph’s High School.

The school plans to then demolish the property’s Family Dollar store building, which stands in the way of a football field planned for the new school on the former Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center site.

In fact, they voted 5-4 in favor of that idea.

South Bend Tribune file photo

Shady decision, no?

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is having none of it (PDF):

… the federal Constitution plainly forbids the government from donating valuable property to a religious organization for unrestricted use.

Americans United asks that the council abandon the transaction and allow St. Joseph’s to purchase this property on the private market. If the city purchases the land, it should be sold at fair market value to the highest bidder.

AU is considering a lawsuit right now, but first, they want to see certain documents which they’ve requested under FOIA.

At least one of the council members is worried:

Council Member Henry Davis Jr., who voted against the proposal, voiced concern over the city potentially shelling out mounting legal fees in the event of a lawsuit brought on by the national advocacy organization.

“I’m quite concerned about legal fees, and being able to handle a lawsuit of that magnitude,” Davis said.

“We have several federal cases against us that we’re paying out on right now,” he said. “Those are legal fees that would come from Washington, D.C. Those cases and those lawyers are not cheap.”

And it could all be avoided if other council members knew well enough to prevent public money from going to private religious schools. Maybe a lawsuit will give them the impetus they need to take a Civics class.

(Thanks to Beth for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://dramatic-exaggeration.blogspot.com/ WhiteJM

    There has to be a way to make these Christians supporting these actions to see how much money their governments are wasting in cases they know they’re going to lose, and that there are good reasons that religious people themselves developed to justify the strict separation of church and state. I overhead a Christian woman talking about a case in Dixie County (I think it was called) that the ACLU was brining suit over for some display. She practically spat out each letter. Like you mentioned in your story about the Giles County School Board last month, groups that defend these obviously illegal cases pro bono are the ones coming out financially secure and with great PR among Christians, while the county government is stuck with the bill for legal fees.

  • http://www.facebook.com/heather.spoonheim Heather Spoonheim

    I wonder about the state of the athletics programs in their public school systems; I’m certain 1.2 million could easily be used there as well.  This is an amazingly blatant violation of tax dollars going to a religious group.

  • http://www.suburbansweetheart.com/ Suburban Sweetheart

    Good for AU. This is heinous.

    Hey, Hemant, wanted to note that Barry Lynn from AU is, in fact, a reverend. See? People of faith support church/state separation, too! :)

  • Anonymous

    I’m curious about those “several federal cases” they are currently paying on.  Is it common for a township to be paying fines on several federal cases at once?  Or did I misunderstand that?

    • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

      I was a little confused on that point as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brady-Bever/40305560 Brady Bever

    So if I were to open a (insert a faith that most Americans don’t hold: Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Daoist, etc.) religious school in the town and get enough students to enroll, I can get land courtesy of taxpayers?!!!  Right?  RIGHT????

  • http://twitter.com/Luvrte66 Beth Riches

    Thank you for writing about this, Hemant! I will be following the story very closely to see what happens. Thank you for giving it some national prominence. 

    Although the Common Council’s decision was obviously the wrong one, I’m glad there were four people who realized it and voted appropriately. 

  • Anonymous

    What would the local reaction have been if taxpayers money had been used to fund a sports field for the local mosque and Islamic school?

    Okay, how about: Local communist party seeks funding from city council.

    Alternatively try: Local LBGT group given $1,200,000 to fight discrimination.

    I’m willing to gamble my used underwear that a shit storm would be quickly-a-brewing!

  • Darlingtonia

    How in the world is a donation of property any different than a donation of money?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I don’t know which is more annoying, city councils that are completely oblivious to the Constitution, or city councils that are aware they’re breaking the law and try to do it anyway.

    “We have several federal cases against us that we’re paying out on right now.”  This particular city council seems to be both aware and oblivious at the same time. Kick their asses, AU.  I’m renewing my membership right now.

  • Erik Cameron

    Surprisingly neutral press reaction from a local tv station. Although the argument from the city council is one that’s starting to sound familiar from religious organizations; “no one has complained about it before, so what’s the problem?”

  • Anonymous

    But wait…

    But at least one legal analyst told us he doesn’t think that’s the case.
    “The South Bend Common Council is not saying ‘oh, by the way, we want to get involved in planning the religion curriculum,’ all they’re saying is that the construction of this institution, this school, will be good for the city of South Bend,” said Professor Rick Garnett of Notre Dame’s Law School.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      If this is the extent of his remarks, then the Professor is completely missing the point so badly that it looks like he’s deliberately being obtuse.   The conflict is not that the City Council might try to impose their will upon the school’s curriculum.  The conflict is that all city tax payers including non-Catholic taxpayers are being forced to pay for a private Catholic school’s project.

      Wake up, Prof. There’s more to the world than Catholicism.

    • Gregg Stephani

      “said Professor Rick Garnett of Notre Dame’s Law School”

      While I can appreciate that he’s qualified to talk on these matters, the fact that he’s a Professor at a nearby private catholic university means he shouldn’t talk on this particular case.

    • Anonymous

      In fact, had the school said that they wanted to be involved in planning the religion curriculum, it could be credibly argued that they were violating the 1st ammendment  rights of the school, as it would be government imposition of religion.

      As it stands it’s a government imposition of religion on the public, since it uses taxpayer money to fund a private religious school. The irony being that if it were government funds being diverted to pay for a new building in, say, an all-girls Muslim school, the violation would seem obvious and it would never happen.

  • Vanessa

    *facepalm*

    Please keep us updated, Hemant,

  • Npklemm

    I live in Elkhart, IN, which is about 20 miles east of South Bend, and I have not heard about this. The local newspaper hasn’t reported this at all to my knowledge. But it doesn’t suprise me. Our area is pretty conservative and christain.

    • Gufdsa

      Doesn’t WSBT broadcast to Elkhart?

  • Daniel

    Okay, to get it out of the way, a clear violation.

    Now, then.  Am I the only one who loves these newscasters?  Very folksy, but seem committed to actually getting the elements of the story out there.  

  • Nico

    I’m not from the US and I understand what the American Constitution says.

    It is quite simple really…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Macker/518709704 Brian Macker

    I bet’cha the owner(s) of the Dollar Family store was politically connected and got overpaid for their property.     That’s the way environmentalism law works on long island, and New York.     The politically connected get rich of these land swaps, and buy outs.   Often a piece of land bought at exhorbant prices by the government is handed over to a private group on the cheap, or resold later at bargain basement prices in order to “fund” the purchase of another over priced piece of land.    Sometimes a piece of land donated to the government for a specific purpose will be used for something else against the wishes of the original donor.    Donate your land as an ecological preserve to the government and don’t be surprised if they “swap” it with another piece and turn it into a garbage dump, or recycling plant.


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