Support of religious conference criticized

State grant went to Baptist convention


A national watchdog group dedicated to the separation of church and state is protesting a $150,000 state grant for a religious conference that officials say will bring as many as 50,000 visitors to Baltimore next month.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State says that using government funds to support the Congress of Christian Education, which the National Baptist Convention plans to stage here June 19 to 23, would violate constitutional prohibitions against public sponsorship, financial support or active involvement in religious activity.

The conference - which city and state officials expect will be the largest ever in Maryland - includes seminars such as "Christianity vs. Islam, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons." An online course description says the session will present "the challenge to the Baptist faith of cults that frequent society" and promises that "time will be spent discovering methods to defeat their causes."

"This is basic, black-letter law," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It is clear under the First Amendment that you cannot use public funds to support religious activity. ... You can't subsidize religious attacks by one group on another."

In an opinion issued yesterday, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said that the state could spend the grant, which includes money to transport conference attendees from hotels to the Baltimore Convention Center, without violating the so-called establishment clause of the First Amendment.

"The convention can ... be expected to strain the public services that local and state government normally provide for both residents and visitors, such as transportation, sanitation and security," Curran reasoned. "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."

Earlier in the week, Americans United wrote Curran urging him to spare the state "the expense and embarrassment of litigation to defend a patently unconstitutional expenditure." A spokesman for Americans United, reached after Curran released his opinion yesterday, said the group would weigh its options.

"We consider this a very serious matter, and we will be looking at it very carefully to see whether it warrants a lawsuit," spokesman Joe Conn said. "One of the clearest commands of the courts when it comes to church and state is that you can't spend tax money to promote religion."

This month the Baltimore City Council approved $297,500 for the convention. That appropriation, which awaits the signature of Mayor Martin O'Malley, includes money for transportation and venue fees.

"When you look at less than $300,000 to bring $41 million in, it's not that big an investment," said O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory. "We would give similar assistance to attract any other convention of this size."

Americans United did not mention the city appropriation in the letter to Curran. Lynn said the organization had been unaware of the expenditure and said it raised the same concerns as the state grant.

City and state officials say the five-day conference will pump as much as $41 million into the local economy. The grant was approved by the legislature last month as an addendum to the $26 billion state budget, contingent on the review by the attorney general's office.

Dennis M. Castleman - the state tourism chief, who asked Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s office to include the money in the state budget - called the congress a "great opportunity."

"I asked for the grant solely because of the economic impact," said Castleman, the assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts. "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."

Nancy Hinds, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, said the conference would "benefit everyone."

"Any time Baltimore has an opportunity to host 50,000 people, and to have them go into restaurants, go into stores, stay in hotels and spend their money here, it's a win for the city," she said.

Neither the National Baptist Convention, the nation's largest black Baptist denomination, nor the local host committee of the Congress of Christian Education could be reached for comment this week.

In a message on the convention Web site, congress President R.B. Holmes Jr. says the 101st annual session of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education offers delegates an opportunity "to sharpen their skills, gain new knowledge and insights, network with thousands of other Christian workers, and return home better prepared, more inspired, and truly revived for ministry."

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