Thursday, September 8, 2011
The South Bend Tribune reports that U.S. District Judge Robert Miller (NDIN) has granted a preliminary injunction sought by four local residents represented by the ACLU of Indiana. The plaintiffs object to the transfer of the former Family Dollar site, recently bought by the City for $1.2 M, to a local CDC that would turn it over to St. Joseph High School, a co-ed Catholic school which would use it for athletics and parking and had committed to accomodate requested public use for 10 years. (FD: my two older children recently began attending St. Joseph High School here in South Bend, shortly after I began my new post here at Notre Dame.) The local council had approved the acquisition and transfer on a 5-4 vote.
In the opinion, Judge Miller agrees with the plaintiffs that the transfer constitutes a direct subsidy to a religious institution in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. The Court distinguished recent school voucher program precedent by emphasizing that the below-market transfer by the City is not part of a program with religion-neutral criteria. To me, this point about the ad hoc nature of public-to-private land transfers makes the opinion an interesting land use case. It raises the question: Are religious institutions quarrantined from economic development land transfers even though (as the Court agrees) they are not from public benefits generally?
Related to this point is the nature of the endorsement of (a?) religion. With the qualification that I am not a First Amendment scholar, I did note that the Court found that the transfer violated the second prong of the Lemon test (you know, whether the action's primary effect is to advance/inhibit religion) Even though neither the City nor the plaintiffs thought the issue determinative, the Court disagreed. The Court implied in its ruling that the proposed transfer sends a message to adherents and non-adherents that they are insiders and outsiders respectively. Was that part-and-parcel of the Court's distinction between programmatic and ad hoc public subsidies?
I would be glad to hear from you. I will be following the developments with not-just-an-academic interest.