Church Seeks County's Aid

Glen Mar Um's Request Raises Issues Of Separation Of Church And State

July 19, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,

An Ellicott City church's request for county government help in reducing borrowing costs on up to $10.1 million for school buildings is raising questions about the separation of church and state.

The issue, in the form of a County Council resolution approving economic development revenue bonds, will be discussed at Monday night's public hearing, and is scheduled for a vote July 30.

"We want to serve the community," said Glen Mar United Methodist Church's pastor, Andy Lunt, about the facilities under construction on the church's new 22-acre campus on Route 103 at New Cut Road. The bond would help refinance a loan for a 33,000-square-foot building and help lower borrowing costs for a new 22,000-square-foot building now under way, Lunt said. Columbia Bank is making the loans.

Lunt said the project is going forward with or without county help, but the less spent on buildings means the church can do more for the community. In addition, county taxpayers bear no risk or expense in the deal, said Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Both buildings will be used for office and classroom space, but the new structure is mostly for preschool day care for 250 children, Lunt said. Other programs include before- and after-school care, and summer camps for hundreds more children. He said more than three-quarters of the children are from families who are not church members and represent a variety of religious backgrounds. The church's priority, he said, is an after-school program for middle-school children recommended by Howard County police.

"The law is clear if the bond goes for space used for community services" and not religious activities, it is legal, Lunt said. "The reason we moved was to provide more community services." Until July 2008, the 55-year-old Glen Mar was on Glen Mar Road off Route 104, Waterloo Road.

But others don't agree.

Bridget Mugane, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, said her group is opposed, citing issues of church-state separation and a possible conflict of interest for Columbia Bank.

"Government is being asked to assist a church to finance an expansion," Mugane said. "It's a very laudable development," she said, but not one county government should be involved in. If it's approved, she said, other churches will certainly make similar requests.

"We're going into the church business," she said. Mugane said her members are suspicious that despite Story's assurances to the contrary, the county will be liable for some cost or lost revenue.

Michael T. Galeone, executive vice president of Columbia Bank, is also chairman of the economic authority board that is arranging the bond deal, but he said there is no conflict for him or the bank.

"I recused myself from any conversations on that topic," he said, adding that the bank receives no special benefit from it.

Cathy Hudson, HCCA's vice president, said that helping the refinancing of debt on the church's existing building provides no economic gain, adding that the building has multiple uses - including religious services.

"You're financing the building of a church," she said. In addition, she asked why the county should help a church-sponsored-day care program over a commercial day care center.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national advocacy group based in Washington, said his organization opposes such arrangements, though they are not uncommon across the country.

"Public financing of religious buildings should not be done," he said, because use of the buildings for more overt religious activities may occur over time, and that could produce "entanglements" that religious organizations might eventually regret.

The Howard County resolution is similar to many others over the years approved to allow various private economic development projects to go forward at lower cost, without placing the county's or taxpayers' money at risk. Howard County approved a similar resolution for the Woodmont Academy, a private Roman Catholic school that built a new campus in 2003 in Cooksville.

According to Story, the Glen Mar project creates no liability for county taxpayers and will help the church build a facility for needed child care, without crossing the church-state line.

"None of the proceeds can be used for religious purposes," Story said, and the buildings will not have obvious religious symbols, like icons or stained-glass windows. Any violation of that would mean the church could lose its nonprofit tax exemption. Story said the authority has received very few requests from churches.

Lunt said the second-floor gymnasium is used on Sundays for religious purposes, since the new campus doesn't yet have a religious sanctuary, but the bond financing would be proportional to the buildings' uses.

County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents the area, said she's reserving judgment on the issue until after the public has its say at the hearing.

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