LEXINGTON, Ky. — The city of Versailles plans to use public funds to build a worship center for a local church that would double as an emergency shelter, sparking objections from a national atheist group and concern among local farmland preservationists.
It is unconstitutional for the Kentucky city to spend public money to construct a building that will have the primary purpose of holding religious services, says the Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wisconsin.
At issue is a plan by the Versailles City Council to annex 21.6 acres in Woodford County about 1.5 miles west of downtown. The property is owned by First Baptist Church, a historic Black church now on South Main Street.
A monolithic dome that could hold 2,000 people would be built on 5 acres of the land to serve as the church's sanctuary and as a severe weather shelter that could withstand 250 mph winds. The church has about 500 members and attracted about 150 worshipers on Sundays before the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, said Rev. Floyd Greene, pastor of First Baptist Church since May 1986.
Vesailles Mayor Brian Traugott said he sees the project as "use of public funds to build a much-needed public tornado 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 wants to use a grant of about $1.2 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the project. The grant has received tentative approval, he said. The Bluegrass Area Development District is assisting the city and church on the project, he said. The city council unanimously approved a resolution last year to seek the grant.
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.
"It's a perfect location. It's near the Housing Authority in a low-income district where many of the homes don't have basements or crawl spaces for shelter," he added. "The only public building we have now that could stand high winds is the police shelter and we could not get hundreds into it."
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."
The nonprofit asked on Feb. 11 for records from the city, including those pertaining to any contracts, agreements, communications or grant requests between the city and the church. It had not received any information as of Tuesday.
It said "a concerned citizen and taxpayer" alerted the nonprofit about the project.
Woodford County has a history of land-use fights, Traugott said. He said he thinks people who notified the Freedom from Religion Foundation about the project knew "it's not popular to come out against a tornado shelter in a low-income section of town and a historic Black church so they have gone this route."
Greene holds a similar view. "We have a local group of tree-huggers who want to keep that land as an open space," he said.
Hampton "Hoppy" Henton, a longtime farmer in Woodford County, said the issue needs more public discussion.
"I just heard about this last week," Henton said. "To build a church on the edge of the urban fringe would only lead to more urban development. I don't think many people around here know what's going on."
Henton, who said he is involved in farmland preservation but not a member of any organized advocacy group, said he did not contact the Freedom from Religion Foundation and does not know who did.
The project with the city is not definite, Greene said. "Some of our older members don't want to move. We have the option of staying put. Our current building is about 100 years old and needs repairs and renovations. We'll just have to see where all this goes."
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said the Kentucky Constitution "states outright that no person may 'be compelled to attend any place of worship, to contribute to the erection or maintenance of any such place.'"
"This unconstitutional boondoggle must be deep-sixed," Gaylor said.