A group of atheists is suing Kansas City officials over the planned use of $65,000 in tourism tax dollars for services related to a Baptist convention coming to Kansas City in September.
American Atheists Inc. and two members who live in Kansas City filed their lawsuit Friday in U.S. District Court in Kansas City. They are suing Mayor Sly James and the City Council, City Manager Troy Schulte and municipal government.
At issue is the City Council’s approval in April of $65,000 from the Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund to Modest Miles Ministries Inc. for the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., which meets Sept. 5-9 in Kansas City .
“Defendants’ expenditure of funds from the public treasury in the amount of $65,000 for the National Baptist Convention, if paid, would impermissibly aid the national Baptist institution and advance its religious purpose in violation of the Plaintiffs’ right to be free from compelled support of religious institutions,” the lawsuit says.
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The city declined to comment on a pending lawsuit. But city spokesman Chris Hernandez pointed out no contract has been signed yet to spend the money. If and when that does happen, Hernandez said, the contract has language spelling out that the money would be used for secular purposes.
While the Rev. John Modest Miles is senior pastor of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Modest Miles Ministries Inc. is a nonprofit arm of the church that does secular work in the community, Hernandez said. It is registered with the Missouri secretary of state’s office as a social service organization.
The lawsuit says plaintiffs Eric Abney and Joshua Stewart are members of American Atheists Inc. who live and pay taxes in Kansas City. It says Miles’ charitable organization is a conduit for the Baptist convention and seeks a judgment from the court enjoining the city from spending the money to aid a religious event.
Miles said Monday he had not seen the lawsuit but had heard about it.
“It was a shock to me,” he said, noting that the convention brings thousands of participants and millions in tourism dollars to the city.
Miles said the National Baptist Convention previously held its annual convention in Kansas City in 2010, 2003 and 1998, and he said city tourism funds had been appropriated in the past related to the convention. The city’s database records only go back five years, so confirmation was not readily available.
Miles, who has served as the chairman of the local host committee for each of these national Baptist conventions, said the money is used for transporting convention delegates and other visitors.
Thad Jones, coordinator with the local host committee and a member of Second Baptist Church in Independence, said the convention is expected to draw about 9,000 or 10,000 delegates to Bartle Hall and nearby convention hotels.
He said the National Baptist Convention is one of the larger conventions to come to Kansas City this year, and the neighborhood tourism money is intended to pay for their transportation, which is one of the largest expenses that the committee has.
The Star’s Tony Rizzo contributed to this report.