FLORENCE — The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking the city of Florence to rescind $38,250 in matching funds it provided to the Salvation Army to assist with the construction of a shelter to serve homeless residents.
In February, the council voted to match a $38,250 grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. The grant money, along with $88,250 provided by the Salvation Army, would be used to fund the $165,221 project.
In addition to a shelter that would be open 365 days a year, the project would include a day center where job skills and GED classes could be taught two days a week.
The shelter would be constructed at the Salvation Army's building on Huntsville Road in East Florence.
In a letter to Florence Mayor Steve Holt dated June 12, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation claims the city may not use its resources to assist "religious ministry projects."
"The Salvation Army is not merely a charity or chain of thrift stores," foundation staff attorney Ryan D. Jayne stated in the letter. "It is a church denomination with an evangelical mission. The Salvation Army's website includes a set of 'position statements' on various political and social issues, all which reference biblical scripture."
He stated by using its position to fund the ministry's homeless shelter, the city is giving the impermissible appearance that it endorses the ministry.
"The establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from endorsing particular churches or religious messages," Jayne wrote.
Holt said the city might not respond to the organization's letter.
"We may have an issue with their facts," Holt said. "It's not our intention to respond to it. We're confident we did the right thing."
City Council President Dick Jordan said he wants to get an opinion from city attorney Bill Musgrove.
"We need to let our city attorney guide us on that question," Jordan said.
Musgrove was out of the office Monday.
Holt and Jordan said the project would benefit the area's homeless population.
Jordan said the Salvation Army is one of several organizations in the area trying to help with homeless issues. The shelter addition would include a commercial kitchen that would be used to feed the homeless.
During an interview Monday, Jayne said the foundation will allow the city time to respond, then consult with the individual who made the complaint and decide the best option moving forward. He did not identify the local resident who initiated the complaint.
He said the foundation will work with the city to settle the issue out of court, if possible, then determine if a lawsuit is the best course of action.
Keeping a close eye on the city's activities moving forward is one option, as is seeking records and scrutinizing city policies, Jayne said.
He said any time the city provides discretionary funds to a religious organization, it is risking a lawsuit from any taxpayer in the city.
"I'm glad to hear they're going to run it by the city attorney and get a legal opinion on the issues," Jayne said. "In the rare circumstance we don't hear back, I treat that as a challenge, basically, an invitation to sue them."
Jayne said the foundation receives about 1,000 complaints each year, and while each complaint is taken seriously, not every complaint can be taken to court. While the organization receives complaints from all 50 states, Jayne said "there are a lot that come out of the Bible Belt."
"A lot of people don't know the Salvation Army is a ministry," Jayne said. "They have a religious mission. They are openly a ministry, first and foremost."
Salvation Army Capt. Benjamin Deuel was out of the office Monday and unavailable for comment.