The Shelby County Board of Commissioners had repeatedly transferred land to churches for nominal sums under a Tennessee provision that permitted this for nonprofits. For example, the county conveyed eight parcels of land to Memphis’ Kingdom Fellowship Baptist Church in 2012 and a further four parcels to the same church in 2015.
FFRF informed the county that it was violating both the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions by its actions, no less than if it directly transferred taxpayer money to churches.
“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from financially supporting churches,” FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote last month to Shelby County Chief Administrative Officer Harvey Kennedy. “The Tennessee Constitution also prohibits the county from financially assisting churches.”
FFRF advised Shelby County that county property should never be transferred to religious institutions for less than fair market value, since this sort of action forces taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to subsidize a particular expression of worship.
Shelby County heeded FFRF’s advice. In a recent response, Kennedy acknowledged that FFRF’s letter had made it reassess its actions and that as a result, Shelby County was suspending the land transfers for the time being.
“Shelby County has considered the Foundation’s request, in its letter to me dated June 15, 2016, for the county to make a change in the eligibility requirements for the conveyance of properties to nonprofit organizations,” Kennedy replied. “The county will agree to issue a moratorium on conveying any county-owned property to a nonprofit religious organization until such time that we can obtain an opinion from the Tennessee attorney general’s office or the law is more clearly defined to address what constitutes a community development corporation.”
FFRF welcomes the pause.
“We’re glad that we were able to educate Shelby County officials on the inadvisability—and unconstitutionality—of donating land to religious institutions,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We urge them to make the moratorium permanent.”
FFRF is a national nontheist organization with almost 24,000 members all over the country, including more than 300 in Tennessee. The a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, based in Madison, Wis., is the nation’s largest association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics), and it has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.