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ADF attorneys secure victory for church in lawsuit brought by American Atheists

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DETROIT — A federal court Wednesday ruled against the American Atheists in its lawsuit against the city of Detroit.  The atheist group sued because the city promised to reimburse a church for property improvements. Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund represented the church’s interests in the suit.

“Churches cannot be treated as second class simply because they are religious institutions.  They have the same right to reimbursement for physical improvements as all other entities have,” said ADF Legal Counsel Dale Schowengerdt.  “No reasonable person would consider a church’s receipt of contractually-promised reimbursement to be a government endorsement of religion.  The court agreed that the church was rightfully allowed to be part of the city’s program.”

The City of Detroit Development Agency entered into a contract with St. John’s Episcopal Church to improve its exterior appearance to enhance the city’s image prior to the 2006 Super Bowl and to spur economic development in the area.  The city entered into a contract with the church to reimburse half of its expenses, up to $180,000.

American Atheists filed suit on behalf of itself and residents claiming a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  As a result of the suit, the city withheld reimbursement to the church, which had already secured a loan and completed the improvements.  In its opinion, the court ruled that the church should receive most of the reimbursement promised by the city.

“Despite the cramped interpretation of the First Amendment by the American Atheists, reimbursing churches for non-religious purposes is not an establishment of religion, just like reimbursing a secular business is not an endorsement of the store or its products,” said Schowengerdt.  “We’re glad that the court saw through this blatant attempt to punish an inner-city church when all it desired to be is a good member of the Detroit community by agreeing to improve its property.”

A copy of the opinion in American Atheists v. City of Detroit Downtown Development Authority, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, can be read here.


ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.