Government & Politics

Atheists’ lawsuit is financial setback for Baptist convention in KC

The Rev. John Modest Miles, a Kansas City Baptist minister, has been losing sleep ever since a group of atheists filed a lawsuit in July.
The Rev. John Modest Miles, a Kansas City Baptist minister, has been losing sleep ever since a group of atheists filed a lawsuit in July.

The Rev. John Modest Miles, a Kansas City Baptist minister, has been losing sleep ever since a group of atheists filed a lawsuit in July.

Miles had been counting on a $65,000 grant from Kansas City tourism tax dollars for the National Baptist Convention in Kansas City, Sept. 5-9.

It’s one of Kansas City’s top five conventions for 2016, and the City Council approved the grant in April to Miles’ nonprofit social services organization, Modest Miles Ministry. The money was intended to shuttle conventioneers to and from their hotels and Bartle Hall.

But in late July, American Atheists Inc. and two members who live in Kansas City filed a lawsuit in federal court, arguing any such funding would violate Missouri’s Constitution, which prohibits public taxpayer aid for religious purposes.

The National Baptist Convention USA is the nation’s largest predominantly African-American Christian denomination, headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., and has about 31,000 congregations.

Kansas City officials say no contract will be signed with Miles without assurances that the money will go for secular purposes. But it’s now so close to the time of the convention that any contract signing is virtually ruled out.

“All of us are in tears,” Miles said of himself and other local organizers working with the National Baptist Convention. “I’m up at night praying. That’s all I know to do.”

Miles said he did not know where a replacement source of funds might emerge. He’s scheduled to meet Friday with city officials to explore other options. City Manager Troy Schulte said this week that the only option is to raise the money from private sources, and the city will try to help Miles with that outreach.

“At this time, we will not be using public money,” Schulte said.

The lawsuit highlights important legal considerations about the separation of church and state but also sparks outrage among the National Baptist Convention’s leadership, who feel it is discriminatory. And it comes at a time when public funding for religious entities is at the heart of another Missouri case that goes before the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2016-2017 session.

The National Baptists’ meeting is big business for Bartle Hall and Kansas City, with an estimated 20,000 delegates and family members, 8,200 hotel rooms booked and a $7.9 million estimated economic impact, according to VisitKC, the city’s convention and tourism agency.

Jerry Young, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, said in a telephone interview with The Star this week that he was shocked by the lawsuit and felt it unfairly singled out his Christian organization.

“I would hope that those who are part of the Atheist movement would not take the position that the money used by the city to market the city and to bring economic development and enhancement, I would hope they would not believe that ought to apply to everybody but Christians,” Young said.

He said it’s not proselytizing or promoting religion to hold the convention in Kansas City and argued it’s an economic and business benefit to the city just as any other convention.

“When you spend money to bring 20,000 people to your city, you’re not spending that money to promote the cause. You’re spending that money because it just makes sense,” Young said.

He said this is essentially a business meeting of the denomination. Some portions of the convention are open to the public.

“Once you decide that you can’t do this because this is a religious group, you have just decided you’re going to discriminate against religion and all the religious people in Kansas City who pay taxes,” he said. “How asinine is that?”

Young said his organization will do what is needed to make the Kansas City event a success, although he did not say how the $65,000 would be recouped.

Amanda Knief, national legal director for American Atheists, said the lawsuit isn’t aimed at picking on the Baptists. The complaint notes that the stated purpose for the funding was shuttle transportation from hotels to the convention.

“It wouldn’t matter if it was Christians or any other religious organization,” she said. “The Missouri Constitution is very clear that taxpayer dollars should not support a religious event. And this is a religious event.”

The Missouri Constitution says, in part, “Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other municipal corporation, shall ever make an appropriation or pay from any public fund whatever, anything in aid of any religious creed, church or sectarian purpose.”

Knief said her group doesn’t seek out groups to sue but does respond to complaints, including from Kansas City residents Eric Abney and Joshua Stewart, who are local plaintiffs in the case.

“Taxpayers in Kansas City brought this to our attention,” she said. “We did try to resolve it with the city. We’re not out to target anybody, but the law is the law.”

The lawsuit names the city of Kansas City, mayor, council and city manager in their official capacities. It asks the U.S. District Court in Kansas City to enjoin the city from providing this money, which comes from the Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund. That fund comes from local tourism tax dollars and is distributed each year to a variety of festivals, organizations and other groups that promote tourism, citywide and in neighborhoods.

The city attorney’s office in Kansas City recently filed a response with the U.S. District Court, pointing out there is no signed contract to provide the taxpayer funds.

The answer acknowledges the City Council authorized the contract but said that was based on the Rev. Miles’ organization’s purpose as a charitable social service agency for the underprivileged and needy, not a religious entity. City officials say they told Miles repeatedly that the money needed to be targeted for a secular purpose, but that assurance was never provided.

“The city required additional information that was necessary before a contract could be executed but that information was not received,” Assistant City Attorney Kathy Adams wrote. “Without an executed contract, the city cannot pay any monies to Modest Miles Ministry and therefore there is nothing to enjoin.”

While the city is proceeding on the assumption that this public money cannot go for a religious organization under the Missouri Constitution, the separation of church and state policy is at the heart of a 2013 Missouri lawsuit, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley, slated to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2016-2017 session.

In that case, Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia sought a state grant to replace a gravel playground with a rubberized surface but was denied by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Trinity Lutheran sued the state over the denial in 2013 but lost at the trial court level and with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The American Atheists group cited that case in its lawsuit over Kansas City’s NTDF funding, noting that while the playground grant was secular, the ultimate purpose was religious because the “Lutheran Church used the day care to inculcate its religious beliefs to attendees.”

But that case is headed to the nation’s high court.

The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted that case for review, after an appeal by the Alliance for Defending Freedom. According to The Washington Post, the Alliance argued the case illustrated hostility to religion and that the church’s application should not have been denied. The Missouri attorney general’s office, according to The Washington Post, countered that the case is not about excluding religious institutions from funding but whether states are required to “choose a church to receive a grant when that means turning down nonchurch applicants.”

Regarding the Baptist convention, Young said the group has very much enjoyed meeting in Kansas City in the past, most recently in 2010, 2003 and 1998. He said Miles was trying to bring them back in the near future, but that’s unlikely given the lawsuit and denial of the grant funding.

As for the $65,000 in NTDF funds, city officials said it will roll back into city coffers and will be available for other tourism-related applicants that have a secular purpose.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley