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Aug. 8, 2013

Conservative Group Challenges ACLU Over City’s Plan to Use Church for Senior Center

By Gabriel Circiog, Associate Editor

A conservative legal group has jumped into the First Amendment fray over Oklahoma City’s plans to lease or acquire part of a church for a senior wellness center.

The Liberty Institute offered a letter of support to the city’s plans to set up the facility at Putnam City Baptist Church. The letter came in response to the American Civil Liberty Union’s contention that the proposal would violate constitutional barriers to separation of church and state.

“After reviewing relevant facts of the case, we concluded that the ACLU’s concerns are either moot or unfounded. The mere fact that the City endeavors to lease or purchase a portion of the Church’s property does not create an Establishment Clause violation under the First Amendment to the United State Constitution,” wrote Michael Berry, an attorney for the Liberty Institute.

Ryan Kiesel, executive director of ACLU’s Oklahoma City office, told the city council last month that using church property for the senior center could create an overlap between public and religious purposes in violation of First Amendment prohibitions against the establishment of religion in public facilities, according to the Oklahoman.

Kiesel raised concerns about plans to offer Bible study classes at the center, hire staff according to the church’s own practices and operate the center by church hours.

At that time, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Bill Hulse, acknowledged that the original plan had been drawn up in haste, leading to the impression that the proposal violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause, the Oklahoman reported.

However, Hulse said, the church had taken steps to avoid a conflict by starting a non-profit group to operate the center.

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