If money talks, are religious donations a form of free speech?

So far in Media and the First Amendment (COMM 320), we’ve learned two things about money: it’s fungible, and it conveys a message. So on the topic of free speech, what kinds of donations are First Amendment dilemmas? The answer is religious ones . . . well, political ones too, but we’ll save that for another blog.

Tuesday’s article from Channel 3000, offers us a prime example.

After pledging to donate $10,000 to Chapel Valley Church in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, the city is being questioned as to whether or not their contribution violates the First Amendment.

According to the church pastor, the money was supposed to be used for a community event––and he made it clear to city officials that it would be a secular, or nonreligious, gathering. Everything seemed good and legal until witnesses of prior church sermons revealed that the real goal of the event was “to bring the light of Jesus” to attendees. Doesn’t sound too secular to me.

“(The church does) a great job, and they’re a great partner for the city […] We just want to make sure if we’re providing funds towards that, that it’s not doing something that’s inappropriate,” said Fitchburg’s Mayor, Aaron Richardson.

While there’s no concrete evidence yet that proves the church or city violated a separation of church and state, it raises some real questions about the both parties’ motives and in-turn, whether or not they have constitutional protection.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, “faith-based organizations may not use direct government support to support ‘inherently religious’ activities.” So yeah, there are some federal rules on government powers putting their money where their mouths are, but what does this mean for state and city support?

A major landmark case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, between a father of a public school and the state of Pennsylvania, gives us some definitive answers to that question.

In 1971, Kurtzman was the Superintendent of a religious school that was being funded by the state for things like textbooks, supplies, and teacher salaries. Lemon, who had a child in a public school at the time, felt that this was a major injustice and took judicial action. Ultimately the case was ruled unconstitutional in an 8-1 decision because the Supreme Court argued that Pennsylvania “violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

And what is the Establishment Clause anyway? It’s that nifty part of the First Amendment that “prohibits the government from making any law ‘respecting an establishment of religion,'” – Cornell Law School.

In short, state and city officials are under just as much scrutiny as their pals in the White House when it comes to government money going towards religious associations.

There’s no telling how this Fitchburg/Chapel Valley Church business will play out, but one thing’s for sure: money is a form of speech, and that means it’s subject to religious regulations within the Constitution just like any other kind of communication.

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