It’s typical for two affable Jehovah’s Witnesses in oversized business suits to make the neighborhood rounds, knocking on doors. But what about when the whole organization comes knocking at City Hall?
Earlier this month, the Raleigh City Council voted behind closed to doors to give the Jehovah’s Witnesses $150,000 to hold their annual convention in the PNC arena next year. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Since 2008, Raleigh has given $875,000 to the religious group for that gathering.
The City Council subsidizes the event—the money actually goes to PNC arena—because it brings millions of dollars to hotels and restaurants and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue to the city.
But giving money to a religious group behind closed doors also calls into question two of the most fundamental concepts in the United States’ Constitution: the separation of church and state and that government should not conduct its business in secret.
“It’s no different than any other group that asks,” argues Mayor Nancy McFarlane. “We have groups all the time that bring large multi-day conventions that are going to spend millions of dollars in the community. Would I discriminate against them by saying I’m not even going to consider it because you’re a religious group?”
Many think yes.
“This seems like a plain violation of the separation of church and state and the Constitution,” says Alex Luchenitser of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington, D.C.. “Government can’t fund religious meetings.”
The establishment clause is the section of the Constitution, which guarantees the separation of church and state. Luchenitser says, “It has always been interpreted as preventing government funds from supporting religious activities or events.”
But funding religion for economic impact reasons is not uncommon. In Kentucky, for instance, owners of a creationist museum are set to receive millions in subsidies from state government to build a Christian-based theme park.
The economics of the decision for Raleigh to subsidize the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention are sound. In 2011, the city invested $150,000 and reaped $300,000 in tax revenue from hotel and food and beverage tax, according to Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau (GRCVB) records. That’s not accounting for the millions raked in by Raleigh hotels and restaurants.
But Luchenitser says the fact that a convention makes money simply shouldn’t enter into it. “You can’t ask the taxpayer to support a religious belief they don’t hold,” he says.
While it’s uncommon for the city to subsidize any convention—it has never allocated money to another religious event—the practice of city tax dollars going toward religious groups extends far beyond City Hall.
The convention bureau frequently allocates tax dollars levied by Raleigh and Wake County to groups of all kinds who wish to rent out the Raleigh Convention Center. To date that has included a Catholic group, Baptists, AME Zion, the United Methodist Church and Lutherans, just to name a few, according to one official with the bureau.
Since the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention brings in roughly 22,000 people over two weekends, it’s too big to fit in the convention center. That’s why the City Council handled the economic incentive, instead of GRCVB.
“The bottom line, if the group meets the strict funding criteria and contracts hotels rooms with our hotel partners while generating direct economic impact … we are open to possibly assisting regardless of the group type,” says Loren Gold of the convention bureau.
The councilors’ decision to discuss and vote on giving the money to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in a closed session meeting, not open to the public or reporters, is also questionable.
It relies on a piece of public meeting law that allows closed sessions to discuss bringing new business to an area through economic incentive. Closed sessions are allowed “to discuss matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses,” the statute reads.
The council invoked similar privilege when providing economic incentive to technology companies Red Hat and Citrix to locate their businesses downtown.
That justification doesn’t hold water for Amanda Martin, who specializes in media law as the North Carolina Press Association’s general counsel.
"I know of no basis under the open meetings law to have a discussion like this in closed session,” she wrote to the Indy. “The exemption that permits discussion of business location or expansion was not intended to be used in a generic way to discuss things that might bring more commerce to the City."
City Attorney Thomas McCormick was out of the country at the time this article was published and unavailable for comment.
Going forward, Luchenitser says his group will be asking the city to discontinue its funding of the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention and reverse its recent decision.
After speaking with an Indy reporter, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina also said it plans to monitor the situation.
"Any time the government makes taxpayers help foot the bill for a private religious gathering, there are obvious constitutional concerns,” wrote Chris Brook, legal director of ACLU-NC in an email. “Instances like this all too easily create an impression that the government is endorsing the religious event in question and doing so on the taxpayers' dime.”