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Atheists rebuffed in Detroit: ADF attorneys secure victory for inner-city church

Church represented by ADF attorneys to receive complete reimbursement for requested property improvements
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DETROIT — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled Thursday in favor of an inner-city church that had been denied reimbursement for property improvements requested by the city of Detroit because of a lawsuit that was filed by American Atheists.  Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund had appealed an earlier decision by a federal district court that had allowed for most of the money promised to be reimbursed, but not the entire amount.

“Churches shouldn’t be penalized simply because groups that don’t like their beliefs choose to ignore the Constitution,” said ADF Legal Counsel Dale Schowengerdt.  “The church was simply responding to the city’s plan for property improvements before the Super Bowl to present a positive image of the city.  The reimbursement promised to the church was for non-religious purposes and did not violate the First Amendment.”

In its opinion, the court wrote, “That the program includes, rather than excludes, several churches among its many other recipients helps ‘ensure neutrality, not threaten it’. . . . No reasonable, reasonably informed observer, moreover, would infer from the churches’ participation in this program, alongside and on equal terms with dozens of secular entities, that the agency endorsed or approved of the churches’ religious views. . . .Excluding the churches from taking part in the program, by contrast, would send a far stronger message—a message not of endorsement but of disapproval.”

The city of Detroit 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.  American Atheists filed suit on behalf of itself and residents claiming the reimbursement violated the First Amendment.  Americans United for Separation of Church and State also filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the church be denied reimbursement.

As a result of the suit, the city withheld the money owed to the church, which had already secured a loan and completed the improvements.  In August 2007, a federal district court ruled that the church should receive most of the money promised by the city, but not the entire reimbursement.  ADF attorneys appealed that decision to the 6th Circuit to secure the entire reimbursement for the church.

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.