By Chuck Ballaro
A man who heads one of the state's largest atheists group called a subsidy for institutional properties in regards to the city's utilities expansion project unconstitutional and said Cape Coral could face a lawsuit if the council decision is not reversed.
The elected board voted 6-2 on June 7 to maintain a long-standing subsidy that allowed churches a yearly 85 percent discount on assessments. The $238,000 per year it will cost for the UEP subsidy will be paid for by the city's general fund, made up primary of property tax revenue.
John Keiffer, who heads Atheists for Florida, spoke during the public input portion of the short meeting Monday and said that the subsidy the city will pay to churches through its general fund is a violation of separation between church and state, and of the state's constitution.
"Everyone is trying to do the best they can with the methodology, and it does put churches in a position where they'll pay quite a bit because they own lots of land," Keiffer said.
But Keiffer said the Florida Constitution states in Article 1, Section 3 that: " No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."
The city says it has done nothing wrong and that city attorneys have assured it that its finance methodology, including the subsidy, is legal.
"We were told we have that ability. He can do and get whoever he wants to get on board, but I'm confident our legal staff has this covered," Councilmember Rana Erbrick said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "This is not the first time this has been raised and it won't be the last. We just have more press on it because we're restarting it."
Erbrick added that the statute allows, on assessments, differentiation among different properties.
Keiffer said he was speaking on behalf of several atheist organizations and plaintiffs and was hoping those organizations would be willing to fund the case.
Keiffer said the Wisconsin-based organization Freedom from Religion is working on the case now, which has thousands of members in Florida, and is mobilizing its base in Southwest Florida.
Atheists of Florida's mission statement is to "unite a community of activists to uphold the complete and absolute separation of church and state," according to its Web site.