On July 22, 2016, the American Atheists group and two Kansas City residents sued Kansas City Mayor Sly James and the city government for designating $65,000 in taxpayer funds for Modest Miles Ministries’ National Baptist Convention, taking place at Bartle Hall in early September.
Missouri’s Constitution forbids using taxpayer money to fund religious events and institutions: “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.” The lawsuit aims to prevent the city from handing over the funds.
“The National Baptist Convention is inherently religious — and it is clear under Missouri law and the First Amendment that Missouri taxpayers should not be paying for it,” argues Amanda Knief, legal director of American Atheists. The group’s website also notes:
Modest Miles Ministries claims in emails to the City that the funds will be used for transportation to and from the convention, making the funding purposes “secular.” That would mean, according to Modest Miles Ministries’ funding application, about 25% of the entire budget of the convention — $65,000 — is being spent on shuttles to and from the convention.
The $65,000 grant for the Baptist Convention was the second largest grant that the City gave in 2016. This was the fourth time the City has approved funding the National Baptist Convention: in 1998, the City approved $100,000 (about 32% of the convention’s total budget); in 2003, the City approved $142,000 (about 42% of the convention’s total budget); and in 2010, the City approved $77,585 (about 27% of the convention’s total budget).
The city government refused to comment to The Kansas City Star. But the paper says, “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.”
The lawsuit says the Kansas City plaintiffs have a “right to be free from compelled support of religious institutions and activities,” and cites another Missouri case, “Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley, upheld by the Eighth Circuit in 2015, in which this court refused to allow public money to be spent on a Lutheran day care.”
The contract between the city and Modest Miles Ministries is due this month.