Atheists file lawsuit to stop Kansas City grant for Baptist convention

by Gregory Tomlin, |
National Baptist Convention

KANSAS CITY (Christian Examiner) – An atheist group in Cranford, N.J., has filed a complaint in federal court to stop the city of Kansas City from providing $65,000 for transportation services during the upcoming National Baptist Convention annual meeting.

The meeting, scheduled for Sept. 5-9, will draw as many as 20,000 delegates from the historically black denomination. Those delegates, many staying in hotels throughout the city, were expected to be shuttled back and forth from the city's convention center by a group calling itself Modest Miles Ministries.

According to the atheist group, the transportation of denominational delegates to a religious convention is solely a religious activity and cannot be funded by the city. The problem, the group also alleges, is compounded by the fact that Modest Miles Ministries is affiliated with Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church and its pastor, John Modest Miles.

The company is listed as a non-profit with the Secretary of State's office and claims to provide "public benefits" in the community, including food, shelter, clothing, health services and counseling to the underprivileged. The ministry, because it is providing shuttle services, has said the purpose of the grant is "secular."

According to the American Atheists, local plaintiffs Joshua Stewart and Eric Abney lodged a complaint with the city in April when the city approved the expenditure of $65,000 for the ministry to transport delegates to and from the convention.

It isn't, however, the first time the city has done something similar, according to the plaintiffs. In fact, if funded this year it would be the fourth time the city has provided such a grant (the other years were 1998, 2003, and 2010, when the city provided $100,000, $142,000 and $77,585, respectively).

In their request for an injunction to force the city to halt the payment, Stewart and Abney, along with the atheist group, claim the money – if paid – "would violate the Plaintiffs' civil rights" under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Amanda Knief, national legal director for the atheist group, said the NBC is "inherently religious" and Missouri taxpayers shouldn't be footing the bill.

"This is a shocking violation of the state and federal constitutions. Direct funding of a religious ministry in the form of a cash handout is exactly the sort of action our founders and the framers of the Missouri constitution sought to prevent," Knief said.