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May 27 2012

Church economic development controversy strikes West Lafayette, IN

Jen says: The following is a guest post by my friends Anna, Mike, and Mario. Anna is the president of the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue and “isn’t cool enough for a blog.” Mike blogs at Politics and Pucks. Mario blogs at An Episcopalian in Planet Earth. West Lafayette, IN is home to Purdue University, my old stomping ground, so I’m still interested in separation of church and state issues there.

Hello everyone! As you may have heard, members of our community have been addressing an issue with regards to Church and State. Local residents have contacted the FFRF and have garnered local media attention. Both Jen McCreight and JT Eberhard have graciously allowed us to guest post on their respective blogs concerning this issue. This Wednesday, we will be hosting an online town hall meeting to address questions the non-theist and LGBTQ community may have about this issue.

First of all, we’d like to warn you that this is a complicated issue. Politics, law, complicated economics, and ethical concerns are all working together to make this as complicated as possible. We’ll try to walk you through it as best we can, but feel free to contact us with any questions.

There’s an empty lot close to campus that has begun to affect property values. Multiple other projects have been proposed for the site, but failed for various reasons, leaving nearby residents dissatisfied. This is where Faith Church (a local, very active, and very conservative Baptist congregation) intends to build a facility known as Faith West for ministry housing, biblical counseling, and as a home for the Purdue Bible Fellowship.

Generally this wouldn’t be an issue, but there are a few reasons why it is. Faith Church has applied for Economic Development Revenue Bonds (EDRB) that are meant to promote economic development and the welfare of the community through non-profit organizations. The non-profit organization finds a bank they want to borrow from, for their project, and can ascertain loans at a lower interest rate. The issue however, is that the city rubber-stamps this loan. It does not cost the city a dime, but it is a clear endorsement of the project. The city’s bond policy requires that a project “be of benefit to the health or general welfare of the City of West Lafayette.” This is a point that has been made by the only dissenting vote thus far, Councilman Rev. Peter Bunder. Faith Church is asking for up to $7 million, and the city only has to approve it and put their endorsement on it, after getting a loan from JP Morgan Chase.

According to the Faith Church website:

Each space within Faith West is designed to serve the West Lafayette Community and further the mission of Faith Church and be a blessing to Faith Church’s neighbors.

This is on their website, differing in language from the proposal to the city, which attempts to carve out the differences between religious and secular components of the project. In the proposal they have claimed that only certain parts of the facility (supposedly those that are not religious) will be covered by the bonds, while the rest is coming from their own funds. It has been mentioned that this “carve out” and division of funds is ultimately impractical and misleading.

On a side note, we know what Faith West would be if it really did serve a secular purpose.

During the May 24th meeting, Anna spoke of the contradictions which are emerging between the story Faith is telling the City and the narrative they are sharing with their own people. She also pointed out direct contradictions between the bond application, the ordinance that would provide the EDRBs, and what was actually being said.

The city attorney responded by saying that the ordinance was the binding document, not the application. Yet the ordinance is even more vague regarding the specifics of the carve out, and neither of them match what was actually being discussed.

Mario then spoke about his concerns regarding this project. He said that he supports campus ministry (he works for one and has good relations with the LGTBQ community and the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue) and understands the right of Faith Church to support their own campus ministry. However, he spoke about his concerns from the economic side since that was the focus of the public hearing:

  1. Faith Church speaks of the benefits that the 18 created jobs will bring to the community. Mario asked what will be the nature of these jobs, what are the qualifications of these jobs, and who can apply to these jobs.
  2. The ERDB will fund student housing on the site. According to their plans, the housing ministry at Faith West is intended to help Faith Church accomplish its mission in West Lafayette by providing ministry housing to students that seek a unique type of housing that is geared toward a high moral code. Each student seeking to live at Faith West’s Student Ministry Housing will sign a membership covenant that will indicate the student’s willingness to live in accordance with a high standard of moral conduct. The staff at Faith West will hold students accountable for living up to the terms of the covenants. Mario asked: who will have access to this housing? Can it be any student at Purdue? Also, what is the nature of this “covenant”? Details about this covenant have not been provided at these public forums. Instead they have been paraphrased, but not presented.

With regards to the LGBTQ community, Faith Church offers biblical counseling. Pastor Viars claims to support diversity, but there has been public testimony of abuse toward a LGBTQ member through their “homosexual repairitive counseling.” We are unable to verify everything we’ve heard, but we’ve heard other allegations of neglect and abuse from counselors when patients need treatment, but didn’t want religion forced on them. Also, their fitness facilities in Lafayette are open to everyone, unless you want a family membership, then you best have a perfect nuclear family.

Mike spoke on the issue concerning the local LGBTQ community (in fact he had to define that term to the board). He mentioned that negative attitudes toward Faith Church’s ideology by members of the LGBTQ community could lead to negative economic consequences. Further citing that the members of the LGBTQ community could dissuade their peers to live or work in the community. Also, he mentioned that each job is going to cost roughly $300-350k, which is well above the wages that these employees of the facility will likely make in one year. More importantly, he emphasized that he is not convinced that these future employees will be hired from within the community.

To answer Mike’s concerns at the May 24 hearing, Steve Viars said the following:

“…We of course welcome LGBTQ members. We are in the business of being welcoming. This can be said by our treatment of the skateboarders. We don’t ask them their sexual identity, because we’re more interested in their tattoos and piercings…”

If this wasn’t enough, the lawyer said at the public hearing:

“There is a term I picked up in Law School: ‘no brainer.’ This is a ‘no brainer’. The only reason why anyone would oppose this project, because they object to Faith Church.”

Despite these concerns, Faith Church claims in a public letter that opposition to this project is “misinformed.” Here’s something that was written in the letter:

With apologies for being blunt, there is no valid basis for voting “No” with regard to a Project like this one, which provides a clear economic development boost in a struggling neighborhood, at no cost to the City and no risk to the City – aside from simply discriminatory animus toward a particular borrower.

It seems here that Faith Church feels that the only way that people will oppose this issue is on religious grounds. Admiral Ackbar has something to say about this.

We need to argue this in a way that avoids anti-Christian rhetoric, because that’s what they want and they’re already baiting this. We know some of you are concerned, and we share this concern. So if you choose to write a letter to the city council, please avoid anti-Christian rhetoric (ask a Christian friend…if you have one). For example, bring up concerns about LGBTQ abuse, but do not single out Christians. The worst thing we can do right now is to fall in this trap.

We want what’s best for the West Lafayette, IN community. Mario, Mike, and Anna are residents, live, work, and care deeply about this community. In fact, we do want to see the lot being used, but we oppose this proposal. By not being forward about all the details of the project, our doubts have been largely confirmed through information on the Faith Church’s website. We think this behavior has been very misleading, and saddening that people who claim a moral standard are violating their own morals, while berating those who object this project.

The three of us (Mario is Christian, Anna and Mike are non-theists) are opposing this project for very similar reasons that are founded on evidence that goes beyond personal opinion regarding religion. And this is a case where actions speak much louder than words.

The final City Council meeting will be on June 4th at 6:30 at the West Lafayette City Hall. Last time, there were over 200 people, most of which were bussed in by Faith. Written statements can be sent to the City Council, but please make sure the Council Clerk gets a copy too.

13 comments

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  1. 1
    Steve

    It’s pretty clear that like housing opportunities, all their jobs would only go to people who are part of their group or who agree with their theology and/or ideology. It’s a really bad idea to spend public money on something that only serves a select in-group-

  2. 2
    mouthyb

    It’s also pretty clear that the housing ‘moral code’ is designed to give the church exclusive control over the lives of students (in addition to ‘community service’, which will end up being proselytizing), as well as being a nuisance for the students are Purdue. My campus allows street preachers and all kinds of religious wackjobs on campus. They nag my students (they’ve stopped talking to me), put up violent, lying, pro-life pictures of fetus parts without warning anyone, yell slurs at students (slut, you’re going to hell faggots, etc). They hold ‘free speech zones’, but cut off the mic and/or yell down dissenters.

    Trust me, they are going to be a public nuisance. They will abuse the student population at Purdue, create adverse learning conditions and/or persecute people they feel are ‘different’, as well as preying on students who are stressed by college.

  3. 3
    FormerFBCmember

    Holy shit, this is the same church I grew up in that drove me away from religion for good. As someone who has been subjected to their idea of “moral conduct” (albeit fifteen years ago and further back) I am convinced that the concerns expressed by Mario, Anna, and Mike are very valid, especially in the area of LGBTQ attitudes.
    In all seriousness, I *still* have nightmares about these people and their interpretations of christian love.

  4. 4
    Dalillama

    The only thing on the list of services in that proposal that constitutes economic development in any way whatsoever is the childcare. Restricted housing =/= low income housing, and none of the rest of that has anything at all to do with economic development. Additionally, the majority of those goals, even in the proposal made to the city, are explicitly faith-based and serve no non-faith purpose, making any endorsement by the city tantamount to an establishment of religion. They say that they will generate 18 jobs, but they do not give any details: Full time or part time? Will the jobs have benefits? Are they living wage? Family wage? All of these things have to be answered before any determination is made of their impact, and I strongly suspect that the answers are mostly no. Furthermore, the church gives no indication that it will e.g. provide financial or technical support to locally owned businesses, new and established, nor to construct any housing other than that which is restricted by faith (possibly illegal, I don’t know what the housing discrimination laws there look like, definitely shouldn’t get city support), nor yet provide assistance to jobseekers in the form of transportation, encouraging employers to seek local employees, providing internet access, or anything at all. So, basically, I see no evidence that thy plan to do any economic development whatsoever, and are therefor seeking the loan and city approval under false pretenses.

  5. 5
    Christoph Burschka

    We don’t ask them their sexual identity, because we’re more interested in their tattoos and piercings”

    …and their clothes made of mixed fabrics, and their love of shellfish with cheese and ham…

  6. 6
    grumpyoldfart

    My prediction:
    The church will get exactly what it wants.

  7. 7
    Bruce Gorton

    The empty lot sounds like it will be an issue in itself. The church will likely get exactly what it wants due to what the lot is doing to property values, with the mental arithmetic by the council being “Churches don’t generally drive down property values.”

  8. 8
    ChrisG

    “Churches don’t generally drive down property values.”

    You’re right there, but councils need to be reminded that churches don’t PAY property taxes, which then have to be raised from all the other property classes which do, which leads to grumbling and “tax revolts”, which leads to population and businesses trickling away, which leads to abandoned/foreclosed properties, which leads to more vacant lots.

    And this proposal is positive for whom?

  9. 9
    Dalillama

    That’s not a fair attack, actually. The development grant specifies a nonprofit, so no one’s going to be paying property tax on that lot regardless.

  10. 10
    becominginvisible

    Wish this would have been brought up when the proposal was first made. Where I live (inner city) churches are a blight on the area around them. They don’t pay taxes is part of the problem. Everyone here has touched on the problems created by such a project. I was part of a neighborhood group that fought a large development a few years back. I know the general ins/outs and double speak of economic development. I’m surprised they didn’t include the builders as part of the job creation. Only 18 jobs? Amateurs.

    Keep track of all of the discrepancies, and perhaps keep track of them on a blog site.

    You need to make it very public that the city is responsible for the bonds that are sold. If the development fails-the city pays. The City Attorney may not have a problem using city money to pay for a church building, but it does seem a violation of separation of church and state. The not for profit organizations that might use the Economic Development Bonds are subject to anti-discrimination laws, churches/religious organizations are exempt. Sorry to be so slow and I haven’t had time to check out all the links, I’ll try to.

  11. 11
    Joey Maloney

    Thanks for a concise yet nuanced description of the situation.

    The problem of carve-outs is not unique to this situation. As certain red-beanie-wearing are fond of reminding us, money is fungible. It doesn’t matter if the cash they get from the city isn’t directly earmarked for religious activities. Every dollar they save on interest is a dollar they can – and you can bet they will – spend on god-bothering.

  12. 12
    Stevarious

    asking for up to $7 million

    18 created jobs

    That’s one hell of an expensive jobs program.

    For $7 million you could pay for a really really nice community garden that would provide food for everybody. Also they could spend the other $6.95 million on something else.

    Of course, that would be socialismz. Can’t have that. Might accidentally help some people.

  13. 13
    jayarrrr

    Churches don’t pay property taxes, yet they expect fire and police protection, a good road to their front door, and sewer service, just like their tax-paying soon-to-be neighbours.

    The bond will be issued, and the Mega-Jeebus Superstore West will be built.

    Why? Well, because JEEBUS! I predict this is Pete Bunder’s last term on the council. The Good People of West Lafayette will see to that.
    Maybe FBC (just because you shucked the word “Baptist” out of your name don’t make you less of one) will next lobby Purdue to give them an exclusive franchise to bring the Xian freak show to Memorial Mall? If somebody wants to make a political statement on the Mall, why not rows of empty boots, instead of those ridiculous “Crosses for Zygotes”?

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