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County grants to religious groups opposed

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

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Sussex gives $4,500 for summer church activities

Grants awarded in June by Sussex County Council to religious groups for summer activities have sparked the latest separation of church and state battle in Sussex County.

Religious activities are something the government can't fund, said Ryan Jayne, a legal fellow with the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The Wisconsin-based group fired off a letter to Sussex County Council after hearing about a unanimous decision to give $2,500 to a Greenwood church for youth camp. In its grant application, Jayne said, the ministry stated it would use the grant to expand its summer youth camp, which combines traditional summer camp activities with faith-based principles

"The county apparently took no steps to ensure that the $2,500 would be used for entirely secular purposes," Jayne said.

On June 28, council gave another $2,000 to Nanticoke Young Life for a Bible camp. "The county council again awarded the money without discussing whether it was proper to force Sussex County taxpayers to fund a sectarian religious event," Jayne said.

The group's opposition is based on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prevents governments from supporting religious groups.

Sussex County spokesman Chip Guy acknowledged the county received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, but declined to comment on specifics. "We are aware of it. It's being reviewed by the county attorney," Guy said.

In February, the group wrote Sussex County Council objecting to a $10,000 grant given to Delmarva Teen Challenge, a religious ministry that reaches out to drug addicts.

Sussex County Attorney J. Everett Moore Jr. responded May 11 saying council noted the group's objection and will consider it if Delmarva Teen Challenge asks for money in the future.

"The county will also consider your input during the county's review of similar entities' grant requests in the future," Moore wrote in response.

There are 24,000 members of Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Jayne said, the group relies on members to police their local governments and report violations.

Rehoboth Beach resident Greg Wert is a member who questions council's grants to religious groups, although, he said, he did not contact the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

He did, however, contact county council opposing their grants to Grace-N-Mercy Ministries and Nanticoke Young Life. "You must realize that this is in flagrant violation of what I consider the very sacred separation of church and state in our country. Stop doing this," he wrote.

Wert said all he got was a response thanking him for his opinion.

"I object in general to taxpayers' money being used for religious purposes," he said.

The group is now waiting for a response from county council before they proceed. Avoiding a court case is the goal, Jayne said, but pursuing one is not out of the question.

"It is disheartening that we got a response that they understood our perspective and said they would consider it, and then several months later, they gave more money to religious institutions for religious purposes," he said. "They apparently aren't stopping it. We're hoping the second letter will change their behavior."

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Original Publication Date: July 12, 2016

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