Atheists: Sheriff donation of jail hoops to churches unconstitutional listen12/29/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Last week, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd sent out a small barrage of press releases touting the removal of county jail basketball hoops. He re-installed them at local churches. The move is drawing fire from a range of critics, including atheists.
In the middle of last week Sheriff Judd invited the press to come take photos of him dismantling basketball hoops at Central County Jail in Bartow. Then he installed the sports equipment at a nearby church, and said “going to jail is not fun and games. If you want to play basketball, stay out of jail.”
"I was watching the news on Friday and I saw a clip about Sheriff Judd donating the basketball equipment to local churches and it caught my attention."
EllenBeth Wachs is Lakeland chapter director for Atheists of Florida. Yesterday that group sent Grady’s office a letter asking him to stop donating county property to churches.
"It's taxpayer property and he made a decision that this taxpayer property was going to go to religious institutions. And that, to me, was not correct."
Wachs said the donation of government-owned property to a church is a clear violation of the state Constitution.
"Florida has a provision, it's called the Blaine Amendment, where no governmental body can donate or give any property to religious organizations. It's Article 1, Section 3 of the Florida constitution. And what he's done here is he's actually given taxpayer property. He has donated property to religious organizations, and that is unconstitutional."
Muslima Lewis is a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. She said both the state and federal constitutions unequivocally forbid this kind of action.
"Based on what we've seen it seems to me that the Polk County Sheriff deciding to favor selected religious organizations with donations of equipment, and that equipment having been purchased with taxpayer dollars is a clear violation of the US Constitution and the State constitution. Without passing on the wisdom of the Sheriff's decision to remove the recreational facilities from the jail."
Last week the Sheriff said he was going to remove all the nets, posts, and backboards from central and south county jails and install them at eight churches. All are nonprofits under section 501(c)3 of the federal tax code. Wachs said there are plenty of organizations Sheriff Judd could have chosen that aren’t Christian churches.
"He has said that it's going to be to 501(c)3 organizations, but he's only picked Christian churches. Atheists of Florida is a 501(c)3 but we didn't get a basketball hoop. ACLU is a 501(c)3, I didn't see them getting a basketball hoop. Let's see, the UU (Unitarian Universalist) Church in Lakeland is a 501(c)3, I didn't see them getting a basketball hoop. The synagogue is a 501(c)3, I didn't see them getting a basketball hoop."
John Kieffer, president of Atheists of Florida, said other government institutions – like schools – could have used the equipment.
"There's county parks, there's schools, there are a lot facilities that could use that basketball equipment."
Kieffer also criticized the Sheriff’s office for reportedly using government vehicles and employees, as well as the jail’s own inmates, to install the equipment at a Bartow church last Thursday.
"It's not just taking the equipment down and laying it on the ground and saying: 'someone come and pick it up, we're donating it'. They actually transported it with County vehicles, using County personnel and actually created, the inmates actually laid out the concrete and created these basketball courts and set these facilities up at the church."
Lakeland Atheists chapter director EllenBeth Wachs said the Sheriff is free to choose what recreation equipment county jail inmates can use, but she’s concerned about the impact of further limiting their range of activities.
"To take away what little exercise these people have sounds to me to be over the top. These people do need to come back into society at a certain point in time, and we have to remember that. They are humans, they made mistakes, and we have to treat them as the compassionate people that we are."
A story published Saturday in the Polk County Democrat quotes a pastor of one of the recipient churches saying he wasn’t sure why his was among the worship centers chosen. Kieffer said one could reasonably link it to politics, given that the county Sheriff has been elected to his post twice, and could possibly seek higher office down the road.
"He's kowtowing to the voters out there who would agree with him that 'if you're in jail that's not a time to have fun and games and we're going to take those basketball courts down and we're going to donate them to churches'. The narrative is politically expedient."
Sheriff Grady Judd is expected to make a statement responding to the atheists’ requests some time this afternoon. The Polk County sheriff’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment by air time.