Kentucky city wants to build shelter that will also be church. Group says plan is unconstitutional.

Published 7:15 am Friday, February 19, 2021

A Kentucky city wants to use public funds to help build a worship center for a local church that the city would use as a shelter during emergencies.

The plan announced by the  city of Versailles sparked objections from a national atheist group and others, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Officials from the Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wis, said the city’s proposal is unconstitutional. The city cannot spend public money to construct a building that will have the primary purpose of holding religious services, the group said.

The Versailles City Council plans to annex land owned by First Baptist Church, a historic Black church now on South Main Street. A shelter that could withsatnd 250mph winds and hold 2,000 people would be built on the land. The monolithic dome would serve as the church’s sanctuary as well.

Vesailles Mayor Brian Traugott told the  Lexington Herald-Leader that the  public funds are going toward building a much-needed public tornado shelter.  Traugott said it doens’t matter to him if a church or some other facility is using the space, as long at the building is there to be used as a shelter.

It’s on church land and they brought the matter to City Hall. It doesn’t matter to me if the church or a ping-pong facility also uses the building as long we have a shelter in place.”

Traugott said the city plans to use grant of about $1.2 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the project. The grant has received tentative approval.

The public funds would pay for about 87 percent of the cost and the church would fund the rest, said the mayor. The church would own the land and building but would agree to public use of the building during an emergency.

Chris Line, a staff attorney for Freedom From Religion Foundation, said in a letter to Traugott that the proposed project is unconstitutional.

“We understand the city’s desire to build a severe weather shelter, but this purported secular goal does not excuse the fact that the government is building a new church building that will be used for religious worship, which violates taxpayers’ right to secular use of government funds,” Line wrote. “It is also unconstitutional to use federal grant funds for this purpose, given that the severe weather shelter would also serve as the church’s sanctuary, directing federal funds directly to support religious worship.”