A national watchdog group that guards against government involvement in religion has asked a federal judge to stop the city from giving $297,500 in public funds to an anti-hunger program to be conducted by local Baptists in advance of their national conference here next week.
But the United Baptist Missionary Convention of Maryland, the group planning to distribute bag lunches to more than 1,000 people at area shelters and missions Saturday, says that Americans United for Separation of Church and State has based its complaint on outdated information.
The lawsuit, which was filed last week in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, was the latest effort by Americans United to block the use of public funds for the National Baptist Convention's 2006 Congress of Christian Education, which is set to begin Monday.
The Washington-based watchdog group says that spending city money on a program in which Bibles and "salvation tracts" are to be distributed along with food would violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
"This specific, directed grant to the Bags of Love Outreach program is an obvious violation of the principle that government cannot promote religion," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This is a pure example of faith-based funding, where the funding is deliberately directed at a conversion effort."
The Rev. Theresa Mercer said late yesterday that the United Baptist Missionary Convention of Maryland was no longer planning to include Bibles or other religious materials in the food bags. She said the flier mentioned by Americans United had been designed before the convention sought city funding.
Reached yesterday evening, Lynn called Mercer's comments "good news."
"If the church has in fact changed its program to remove all the religious elements from the materials distributed, then that would certainly be a step in the right direction of curing any unconstitutionality," he said. "It's always good news to me when church officials understand that they can't use public money to evangelize."
Americans United has objected to both the $297,500 city expenditure and a $150,000 state grant in support of the Baptist conference. The group says that using government funds to support such a conference would violate First Amendment prohibitions against public sponsorship, financial support or active involvement in religious activity.
"We're hoping to make it clearer and clearer that this kind of activity is not permissible," Lynn said.
City and state officials have said that the public money is intended to boost economic development, not to promote religious activity. They estimate that the conference, the largest ever held in Baltimore, will attract as many as 50,000 visitors and pump more than $41 million into the local economy.
The "Christ-Centered Congress," which this year takes as its theme "The Heavenly Vision: The Message of the Church," includes courses titled "Bean Pie, My Brotha? The Myth of the Black Muslims," "The Truth About Same-Sex Marriage" and "Christianity vs. Islam, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons."
Online course book
An online course book describes the last as presenting "the challenge to the Baptist faith of cults that frequent society" and promises that "time will be spent discovering methods to defeat their causes."
Mayor Martin O'Malley approved city funding this month to support the National Baptist Convention's "Feed the Hungry Event" after it was passed by the City Council.
In April, the state legislature approved a $150,000 grant to help transport conference delegates from their hotels to the Baltimore Convention Center and other venues.
In an opinion requested by the legislature, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said that the state could issue its grant without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
"The convention can ... be expected to strain the public services that local and state government normally provide for both residents and visitors, such as transportation, sanitation and security," Curran wrote. "Supplementing the existing public assets that support such services in order to cope with a substantial, though temporary, increase in the demand for those services is surely a secular purpose."
Curran also echoed the economic-development argument.
"The region's success in managing the challenges to public services posed by such a large convention may help attract other conventions of equal magnitude, with similar positive effects on the local economy," he wrote. "The appropriation may also serve this secular purpose."
The lawsuit, which was filed by Americans United on behalf of five city taxpayers, names O'Malley, the City Council and members of the United Baptist Missionary Convention of Maryland as defendants. City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said yesterday that he had not seen the complaint.
Americans United was seeking an injunction that would prevent the city from paying out the money or providing other funds for the convention's religious efforts.
Lynn said late yesterday that Americans United would need more information about the Bags of Love Outreach program before it could make a decision on whether to withdraw the lawsuit. He said the group had not decided whether to pursue legal action against the state.