Fitchburg looks into church event funding after local nonprofit says it violated First Amendment

The city of Fitchburg is double checking whether money it gave to a local church violated the First Amendment.

As part of its new healthy neighborhood initiative, the city of Fitchburg pledged to reimburse up to $10,000 for some events held by Chapel Valley Church.

The city hasn’t paid the church yet, and now city staff is figuring out if they will at all.

Ryan Jayne with the Freedom from Religion Foundation said research his group did shows the Chapel Valley Church was intending to use public funds to share their religion at a community event.

“They assured the city that the projects they were funding were going to be secular,” Jayne said. “They said on their application this will not be for religious purposes.”

A pastor with the church said no ministering happened at the event in question.

According to a news release from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, another pastor with the church said the goal of the event was to “bring the light of Jesus, in us, wherever you go” during one of his sermons before the event. The release also said in the same sermon, the pastor encouraged congregants to minister to people there.

Mayor Aaron Richardson said his staff is looking into it, doing some of the same research the foundation did but also talking to alders who went to the church’s event.

“(The church does) a great job, and they’re a great partner for the city,” Richardson said. “We just want to make sure if we’re providing funds towards that, that it’s not doing something that’s inappropriate.”

He said he’s not sure yet whether the church violated their agreement or not, but regardless, in the future, he and his staff are checking the process for this program to make sure the line between church and state is clear.

“If they are getting city funds, then my expectation would be that they aren’t promoting (religion) at all,” Richardson said.

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