West Virginia ACLU Claims County’s Support of “Jesus Fest” is Unconstitutional

The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia has called for an end to Harrison County, West Virginia’s “financial or symbolic support” of Jesus Fest, an annual Christian festival held in downtown Clarksburg.  The Associated Press reports that the executive director of the W. Va. ACLU, Franklin Crabtree, sent a letter on December 22nd to the Harrison County Commission explaining that its “funding and symbolic endorsement of Jesus Fest would likely violate” the Establishment Clause as well as the West Virginia Constitution.  According to the Jesus Fest website, “[t]he event is a family festival with a focus on creating unity in the Body of Christ, which is accomplished through an interdenominational approach to utilizing ecumenical leadership and the involvement of local area churches.”

Crabtree’s letter claims that the Commission has given Jesus Fest $2,000 per year for the last five years.  Crabtree’s letter also states that if the Commission fails to comply with the ACLU’s request, it will inform concerned taxpayers of their right to bring suit.  Commissioner Mike Romano, who is also an attorney, is examining the letter.  He told The Exponent Telegram that if there is validity to the ACLU’s claims, the Commission will take “appropriate action.”  The Commission sent the letter to the county’s Prosecuting Attorney (its chief legal officer), Joe Shaffer, for his opinion.  Shaffer said that he will take a “hard look” at the claims but that “by donating money, (commissioners) are not promoting one religion or promoting religion period; they’re promoting tourism in downtown and community involvement.”

The Blurring of Church-State Lines?

Jacques Berlinerblau (Georgetown) has offered up a list of “top 10 religion and politics stories to watch” which made it onto the Washington Post.  Among other stories, he includes this as Number 3:

3. Justice Kagan’s Dissent in Arizona School Tuition Organization v. Winn, et al: In her first dissent–and a crackling one at that–Justice Elena Kagan lamented how difficult it had become for citizens to bring establishment clause cases to the Court’s attention.

She warned that the decision “offers a roadmap—more truly, just a one-step instruction—to any government that wishes to insulate its financing of religious activity from legal challenge… No taxpayer will have standing to object. However blatantly the government may violate the Establishment Clause, taxpayers cannot gain access to the federal courts.”

Still, Kagan’s demurral reminds us that 2011 was not a good year for those opposed to the blurring of church/state lines.

Berlinerblau does not offer many specifics about which cases or other controversies he believes “blurr[ed] chuch/state lines,” but I wonder which ones he might mean.  He does mention Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to prohibit any clergy member from saying anything religious at the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attack.  This comes in at number 7 on his list.  Berlinerblau praises Mayor Bloomberg for “hold[ing] his ground” and he urges other “[s]ecularists” to “study the episode carefully if they want to prevail again.”   But that seems like a moment that does not fit into the otherwise blurry year. 

Coming in at Number 6 on this list looks like the effort of Bronx Household of Faith to use public facilities on equal terms with everyone else.  I guess this, listed under the title of “The Swashbuckling Evangelicals,” is what the blurring refers to — an effort by a religious group which “never stops, never thinks small, and is afraid of nothing” to use a public facility in the same way that other groups are allowed to do so.  But Berlinerblau should be happy about the outcome here: Bronx Household of Faith lost at the 2d Circuit, and its cert. petition was denied by the Supreme Court.  No blurring at all.

Finally, at Number 10, Berlinerblau lists the so-far inchoate possibility that Occupy Wall Street and the “Religious Left” join forces, “with crafty Obama operatives forging those bonds and reaping the rewards.”  According to Berlinerblau, this has not yet happened, but he describes it as a “missed opportunity.”  Yet that this has not happened also does not seem to fit the blurring-of-church-and-state narrative which seasons the rest of the column.