- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A Maryland grant of $150,000 for a religious conference in Baltimore violates the separation of church and state, according to a national watchdog group.

The money would provide logistical support for the National Baptist Convention to stage the Congress of Christian Education from June 19 to 23 at the Baltimore Convention Center. The conference is scheduled to feature the seminar “Christianity vs. Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons,” and is expected to draw 50,000 people, which city and state officials say could be the largest such event in city history.

“It is clear under the First Amendment that you cannot use public funds to support religious activity,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “You cannot subsidize religious attacks by one group on another.”

However, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said Friday the state could spend the grant without violating the so-called Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because the convention will overburden such public services as transportation, sanitation and security.

“Supplementing the existing public assets that support such services in order to cope with a substantial, though temporary, increase in the demand for those services is surely a secular purpose,” said Mr. Curran, a Democrat.

The group said in a letter to Mr. Curran earlier last week that litigation was possible. A spokesman said the group is considering its options now that Mr. Curran has stated his legal opinion.

“We will be looking at it very carefully to see whether it warrants a lawsuit,” said Joe Conn, the spokesman. “One of the clearest commands of the courts when it comes to church and state is that you cannot spend tax money to promote religion.”

The city could contribute even more money to the convention. The City Council has approved $297,000, including transportation and venue fees. The appropriation awaits the signature of Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat and a top contender in the upcoming gubernatorial race.

Mr. Lynn said his group was unaware of the expenditure and that it raised the same concerns as the state grant.

City and state officials expect the conference to pump as much as $41 million into the local economy. O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said such a windfall justified the city’s appropriation, which she characterized as routine.

“When you look at less than $300,000 to bring in $41 million, it’s not that big of an investment,” she said. “We would give similar assistance to attract any other convention of this size.”

State tourism chief Dennis Castleman asked the office of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican seeking re-election, to include the state grant in the budget. The grant was approved as an addendum to the budget, contingent on the review by the Attorney General’s Office.

“I asked for the grant solely because of the economic impact,” Mr. Castleman said. “I did not look at this from a religious perspective. The grant is about trying to work with the city of Baltimore to attract the largest convention the city has ever had.”

But Mr. Lynn said such a mentality could lead to unintended consequences.

“If the adult-film industry wants to come in and have their convention there and it’s that big, [officials] better be prepared to fund that one also,” he said. “The first one always sets the precedent.”


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