Funds cut for church day care; Council deletes grant money, noting constitutional barrier; 'Our concern is legality'; Owens had argued religious teaching not point of program


Worried they would run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, Anne Arundel County leaders deleted funding last night for a day-care center run by a south county church.

Citing the requirement to keep church and state separate, the County Council voted 5-1 to delete $26,500 from a community grant bill -- money that would have provided furniture for Mount Zion United Methodist Church's proposed child care center in Lothian.

"Our concern isn't their excellent intentions," said Councilman Clifford R. Roop, a Broadneck Republican. "Our concern is legality."

County Executive Janet S. Owens asked the council to approve the church's grant application, despite advice from county lawyers that it would violate the First Amendment, which calls for a clear separation of church and state.

Owens argued that the grant money, funded by impact fees charged to a local landfill, should not be viewed as public funds. Moreover, she said, the money would not pay for religious instruction, but for a needed day-care center that would serve the wider community.

"This is badly needed," Owens said in advance of the evening council meeting. "There aren't other programs like this one. I don't see that there should be a problem."

Council members, however, were hesitant to enter the legal minefield. In an hourlong discussion, they heard from several south county residents and the county's attorney, to try and clarify the issues.

"It seems to me it would be prudent not to get involved in this in the first place," said Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., a Democrat from Glen Burnie.

Councilman Bill D. Burlison, a west county Democrat, said, "I understand this money goes to child care, but if it's going to a church mechanism, if there is any connection to a church, I have great difficulty with it."

Only Councilwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat, voted to keep the money in the grant bill. Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat, was absent.

This is not a new conflict for government institutions in Maryland. While religious groups usually rely on the collection plate to pay for community outreach efforts, many have turned to state and local governments for added assistance.

Since 1993, 19 religion-affiliated groups of various denominations have successfully lobbied for $7.5 million in state aid for building projects. Maryland's attorney general has concluded that such giving is constitutional, though each piece of legislation specifically notes that no taxpayer money can be used to build facilities for religious worship or instruction.

Anne Arundel also had a lengthy history of directing the funds from the landfill to church groups in southern Arundel. But last year, the county's law office concluded that such a practice violated the separation of church and state.

Klosterman was one of several council members who said he agreed. At issue, he said, was the possibility that funds from the day-care center could be transferred to the church, or that the center would engage in religious instruction.

The Rev. Ramon McDonald, Mount Zion's pastor, testified before the council last night, promising that the child-care center would be a separate and distinct operation.

Further confusing matters, the county attorney's office stepped forward with a new interpretation of the grant program last night that differed from the one issued last year.

For members of a citizen committee that reviewed all applications for the grant money, the new advice posed a problem: They had rejected several other church groups based on the earlier legal analysis.

Rawson Carter, a member of the grant committee, said he felt "blindsided."

"We were left with no doubt in our minds that we could no longer give money to a religious institution," he said. "What I find particularly disturbing is that now this addresses only one religious institution."

Carter proposed that the council allow the committee to reconsider all of the religious groups that applied for grant money but were denied on constitutional grounds. The council issued no opinion on that ruling.

Pub Date: 9/08/99

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